The Establishment of Women’s Chambers of Commerce around the World

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Introduction

The contribution of women and women entrepreneurs to economic growth is widely recognized. However, the Women’s Economic Opportunity Index, which assesses the environment for women employees and entrepreneurs in 128 countries, shows that almost half of the world’s working age women are currently not active in the global economy.1

The index, put together by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), is based on 29 indicators that evaluate women’s access to finance, education and training, legal and social status, and the general business environment. The EIU index report highlights the fact that action needs to be taken by governments worldwide in order to remove the legal, social, educational, and financial barriers and expand opportunities for the 1.5 billion women that do not participate in the formal economy.

While there are many differences in terms of geography, economic conditions, demographics and education, common barriers include poverty, limited or non-existent access to education, social norms, cultural gender roles, and weak political and civil rights. Additionally, women face obstacles to doing business such as “financing, level of taxation, bureaucracy, finding business contacts, lack of a modern technological infrastructure, an absence of information and locating qualified personnel.”2

One way to overcome such obstacles is to join forces with like-minded women to create organizations that improve women’s opportunities.

Types of women’s organizations

Throughout the world there are various types of women’s organizations: business and professional women’s associations, women’s resource centers and women’s divisions within chambers of commerce, or women’s chambers of commerce. Other NGOs serving women include women’s right/defense groups, gender equality organizations, organizations attached to political parties, and networks/coalitions/alliances of women’s organizations.

Some of these networks operate at the national level, as is the case of the Association of Nigerian Women Business Network (ANWBN), the Coalition of Women Business Associations in Romania (CAFA), the Women Alliance of Business Associations in Zimbabwe (WABAZ), and the Afghan Women’s Business Federation (AWBF), to name just a few.

Other networks operate at the global level when women’s organizations from various countries join in order to share information and knowledge and promote their members’ interests internationally. Examples include Femmes Chefs d’Entreprises Mondiales, the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW International), The International Alliance for Women (TIAW), or the Association of Organizations of Mediterranean Businesswomen (AFAEMME).

The motivation behind the formation of women’s chambers of commerce

Women’s chambers of commerce and industry are one of the types of organizations seeking to expand economic opportunity for women. The primary reason for the creation of women’s chambers is to respond to the collective needs of their women entrepreneur members. In most cases, the impetus for the establishment of such an organization is a feeling among businesswomen in a given community that their needs are not being met in the traditional chamber setting. In response, they decide to create their own chamber.

A second reason for the establishment of women’s chambers of commerce is to nurture and support the economic participation of women. Entrepreneurship, leadership, and business management education are powerful ways of empowering women who would otherwise lack the practical tools, the knowledge, and the confidence to start a business.

Thirdly, women’s chambers seek to reduce the barriers to doing business and to promote an inclusive entrepreneurial culture. Through advocacy, they make policymakers and other stakeholders aware of the issues faced by women in business and propose solutions to address them. Women’s chambers become the voice of women-owned micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in interactions with various stakeholders such as policymakers, central banks, commercial banks, and others.

Where do women’s chambers exist?

Women’s chambers of commerce exist all over the world: in Asia (in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, for example), Africa (e.g., in Tanzania and South Sudan), Central America (e.g., in Haiti), North America (eg.g., United States), and in the Asia-Pacific region (e.g., inPapua New Guinea). Depending on the geographic area they cover, they are city, regional, state, or nationwide chambers.

Some of these chambers (such as the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce in the United States) allow both women and men to become members, whereas a majority of women’s chambers target women exclusively with their programming.

In some cases, women’s chambers started as divisions of general chambers (as is the case of the Professional Women’s Chamber of Western Massachusetts, formerly the Women’s Division of Springfield Regional Chamber in the United States) to become stand-alone entities later on. Others have been independent organizations since inception.

Overcoming barriers to the establishment of women’s chambers

In developing countries the creation of women’s chambers has often been fraught with challenges, especially in terms of legal barriers and social attitudes. Sometime the legislation governing the creation and operation of trade organizations simply does not allow for the creation of women’s chambers.

In Pakistan, for instance, the establishment of women’s chambers became possible only after a change in legislation. A new Trade Organizations Ordinance was adopted in 2006, as a result of a year-long consultation process involving the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce, the Ministry of Commerce, and the Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE)’s Pakistan Office. Prior to 2006, the 1961 Trade Organizations Ordinance governing the formation of chambers of commerce and business associations had not provided for the establishment of women’s chambers.3

Similarly, the formation of a dedicated women’s chamber required an exemption from the provisions of the law regarding business organizations in Bangladesh. The Trade Organization Ordinance of 1961 amended by the Trade Organization (Amendment) Ordinance, 1984, and the Rules of March 1994, further amended in July 1994, stipulates the types of chambers eligible for registration and women’s chambers are not included.

However, the same law also specifies, that “the Government may grant exemption to any trade organization” from the requirements of this law.4 Using this provision, the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) managed to obtain a temporary and then a permanent license.

In addition to legal obstacles, many developing countries have patriarchal social structures where women lack access to the same opportunities and freedoms as men. In such countries, the establishment of women’s organizations faced resistance from traditional male-dominated chambers of commerce and other business associations.

In the case of Bangladesh, the apex trade body was opposed to the creation of such a chamber and even ran advertisements against it, recalls Selima Ahmad, President and founder of BWCCI.5 The women’s chamber was seen as a challenger and a competitor by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce. Nevertheless, the government was supportive of women’s development and it gave the new entity a license to operate.

Traditionally, the needs of women entrepreneurs were served by women business associations such as the Algerian Association of Business Women (SEVE), the Ghana Association of Women Entrepreneurs, the Network of Nicaraguan Business Women (REN), or the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey (KAGIDER). In recent years, as decision-makers have given more importance to chambers of commerce in some regions (such as South East Asia) and view them as partners for dialogue on policy issues, women have decided to form chambers rather than professional or business women associations.

In reality, there is very little difference between a women’s association and a women’s chamber of commerce, aside from possibly the scope of their activities. For instance, many women’s associations have an agenda focused more on social issues rather than business issues, which differentiates them from a chamber of commerce.

The difference between traditional chambers of commerce and women’s chambers of commerce lies in the focus of their programming. The latter organizations champion the cause of women entrepreneurs and offer more services and programs aimed directly at women. In the case of women’s chambers of commerce that have both women and men as members, that difference is almost non-existent.

Serving and representing women entrepreneurs

While the legal framework, economic and social context, and cultural norms can vary from country to country, women’s chambers of commerce all over the world provide their members with a wide range of programs and services. They include access to information, training and education, networking, business promotion, and confidence building programs, as well as access to potential customers, markets and funding opportunities.

As many women entrepreneurs in the developing world operate in the informal sector, women’s chambers provide valuable information and training on how to formalize their business. By joining the formal economy, women can enjoy the protection granted by the law and at the same time become eligible for bank loans. For instance, in 2015, the Tanzania Women Chamber of Commerce conducted a series of training workshops on formalization of business and sources of capital for businesses across the country.6 Similarly, the Papua New Guinea Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry has recently organized training courses for women-owned SMEs on formalizing and strengthening new businesses.7

Women’s chambers of commerce all over the world also offer to women entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs training and education opportunities in the form of workshops, conferences, mentorships and internships that equip them with the information, knowledge, and skills needed to succeed in business. For example, the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce of Sri Lanka launched in March 2015 a mentoring program for women-owned small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), which enabled 53 mentees to receive knowledge, insight, support, and guidance from successful business women, corporate leaders, bankers, and other prominent private sector actors.8

As part of their activities, women’s chambers of commerce also engage in recognition and confidence-building programs. One such example are award programs aimed at celebrating and recognizing outstanding local business women. Since 2009, the Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (WCCI) in Lahore, Pakistan has organized the Laurels of Honor Award ceremony, which highlights the commendable work done by women from diverse sectors such as banking, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, manufacturing, information technology, media, politics, healthcare, education, art, sports, and entertainment.9 Such award programs help raise awareness about women entrepreneurs and serve as an inspiration for more women to start a business.

Women’s chambers of commerce also connect their members with potential new customers and markets by facilitating their participation in trade missions and investment forums and by organizing trade exhibitions. For instance, the Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry Multan Division in Pakistan organizes the Blue Fair, an annual three-day handicrafts exhibition showcasing textile products of various local manufacturers. During the exhibition, women entrepreneurs have also had access to workshops that help them improve their business skills.10

Speaking on behalf of their members, women’s chambers of commerce also play a crucial role in their countries by identifying business constraints, promoting policy proposals that are good for women in business, and finding ways to eliminate obstacles to women’s economic participation. One such frequent obstacle is access to finance. Women’s chambers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan have successfully advocated for more favourable lending terms, as well as the allocation of separate funds for loans to women entrepreneurs. For instance, the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Sri Lanka has recently managed to secure the allocation of 5 percent of total loans for SMEs granted by all financial institutions to women-owned companies, and the Ministry of Finance has included a provision for that in the 2015-2016 budget. Now the Chamber is following up on the implementation.

Conclusion

Worldwide, women’s chambers of commerce are created to empower women entrepreneurs and to advocate for a conducive policy environment. In developing countries, women’s chambers help business women move from the informal to the formal sector by building awareness about the advantages of formalization and encouraging women to register their businesses. Women’s chambers also support business women to grow from micro to small and medium-sized enterprises, while at the same time providing them with numerous opportunities for skill-building, networking, promotion and recognition, access to local and international markets, and, crucially, access to much needed funding.

Women’s business organizations offer not only tangible benefits in the form of business opportunities, but also intangible benefits such as confidence building and a more positive perception of women in business within their community.

Moreover, women’s chambers strive to make the business needs and concerns of women entrepreneurs known to policymakers As a women entrepreneur in Bangladesh put it, “they give a voice to previously voiceless women.” Through their advocacy work, women’s chambers enhance women’s ability to participate equally in economic and political activities and contribute to democratic governance.



Check list for creating a women’s chamber of commerce

  • Does the legislation in force in the country allow the creation of women’s chambers? If it doesn’t, what would it take to change it?
    • Does the constitution of the country guarantee freedom of association?
    • Does the constitution of the country guarantee equal rights for women and men?
    • Has the country committed to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals?
  • What are the legal requirements for establishing a chamber of commerce in the country? Can a women’s organization fulfill them?
  • Does the organization have a clear mission?
  • Has it defined the profile of potential members?
  • Does the organization have bylaws and articles of incorporation?
  • Do the organization’s leaders know how to run a chamber?
  • Does the chamber have a business plan?
  • Does the chamber have committed founders?


Carmen Stanila currently serves as a Senior Consultant with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). Previously she worked as Deputy Director with the CIPE Regional Office in Romania and with the Regional Center for Organization Management. She has extensive experience as a program manager, trainer, and facilitator. Her areas of expertise include association management, advocacy, coalition building, and women entrepreneurship. She holds a degree in foreign languages from the University of Bucharest and an MBA from the Academy of Economics in Bucharest and the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers Paris.


End Notes:

1 Women’s Economic Opportunity Index 2012, The Economist Intelligence Unit https://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=weoindex2012
2 Women’s Business Associations. Experiences from Around the World: Central and Eastern Europe, Center for International Private Enterprise, 2010
3 Nadgrodkiewicz, Anna. Empowering Women Entrepreneurs: the Impact of the 2006 Trade Organizations Ordinance in Pakistan, Center for International Private Enterprise, 2011, http://www.cipe.org/publications/detail/empowering-women-entrepreneurs-impact-2006-trade-organizations-ordinance
4 Economic Policy Paper on Business Organization Laws Bangladesh, p. 2 http://www.dhakachamber.com/economic_policy/Business_Organization_Laws.pdf
5 Democracy That Delivers Podcast: #6 Selima Ahmad on Women’s Business Leadership, Center for International Private Enterprise, March 9, 2016, http://www.cipe.org/podcast
6 Tanzania Women Chamber of Commerce website http://www.twcc-tz.org/news-and-events/page/2/
7 Papua New Guinea Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry https://www.facebook.com/pngwcci
8 Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce Sri Lanka Newsletter, issue no. 19, July 2015
9 Anna Nadgrodkiewicz, Empowering Women Entrepreneurs: the Impact of the 2006 Trade Organizations Ordinance in Pakistan, Center for International Private Enterprise, 2011, p. 4
10 Women entrepreneurs’ exhibition ‘Blue Fair’ starts in Multan‏, Customs Today, March 5, 2016 http://www.customstoday.com.pk/women-entrepreneurs-exhibition-blue-fair-starts-in-multan%E2%80%8F/
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