WASHINGTON — One of the best things a country can do for its economy is empower and engage women. Closing the gender gap can lead to economic growth, according to the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and United Nations.
The U.S. State Department evidently agrees. In partnership with StartUp Cup, it founded the Women’s Entrepreneurial Centers of Resources, Education, Access, and Training for Economic Empowerment, or WECREATE. It is funded by the State Department in cooperation with private sector organizations. These centers provide a physical space for women entrepreneurs in developing countries have access to the resources and tools they need. Each center conforms to the needs of the women entrepreneurs of its locality. The services offered at WECREATE centers include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Trained mentors to guide emerging women entrepreneurs
- Capacity building through educational programs
- Networking opportunities
- Dormitories for long-term programs to minimize the risk of the women being exposed to violence
- Childcare services
Each center also supports programs for men and boys, seeing them as “Agents of Change”. WECREATE recognizes that any transformation in society will have to include both sexes, and men and boys have an important role. “Agents of Change” are offered education and resources to develop the understanding that empowered women are invaluable in the growth of families and communities.
WECREATE has a particularly strong presence in the Lower Mekong Region which includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The centers support the State Departments goals to assist the region.
In 2009, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Foreign Ministers of Lower Mekong Region countries in Phuket, Thailand. At the meeting the Ministers decided to deepen cooperation in the areas of environment, health, education, and infrastructure development. The Lower Mekong Initiative was created. Myanmar later joined the LMI in 2012.
The U.S. has since been engaged in the development of the region. “Forecast Mekong” was created by the U.S. to predict how the Mekong River Basin will be affected by climate change.
The State Department sponsors scholarships with three of the LMI countries, training leaders in English and over 2 million people in the region have benefited from health services provided by the U.S.
The Mekong Region, however, still faces many challenges. Oxfam Australia has been working in the area of 20 years, and cites the main threats to the Mekong’s poorest communities as land grabs, damming, deforestation, and exploitation of resources.
The vulnerability of the Mekong Region, and especially the five lower countries, makes the presence of WECREATE all that more vital.
“We believe that women are tremendous, untapped investments that yield huge returns for entire communities,” says Natalie Byrne, director of global impact at the skincare company Dermalogica.
Dermalogica has partnered with Kiva, a non-profit organization, to create Financial Independence Through Entrepreneurship in order to give women entrepreneurs the kickstart they need to start their businesses. 30,000 women in 68 countries have received microfinance loans from FITE.
Byrne says, “The fundamental difference between entrepreneurs in developing countries and in the U.S. is that in many parts of the world, women don’t have access to banking systems and often can’t receive loans without permission from a man.”
Difficulty in accessing financial loans are just one of the many obstacles facing women entrepreneurs. Tanya L. Hiple is a Franklin Fellow in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. Hiple had the opportunity to visit a WECREATE Center in Cambodia and she relays her conversation with the women there.
“They spoke about the many challenges they face—whether it be getting moral support at home, gaining access to markets, finding mentors, or identifying more resources.”
Women entrepreneurs are on the verge of exploding into the global economy. The term “third billion” is used to describe the billion women who are expected to transform their local economies in the next decade.
WECREATE centers aim to break down as many barriers as possible. The issues women entrepreneurs face are as diverse as the communities from which they come, but WECREATE, and other like-minded organizations like FITE, are working to hasten the emergence of the third billion.
– Julianne O’Connor