Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down

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Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down

Maharjan’s journey, though, as a woman entrepreneur has not been an easy one. When she started her venture, she had a difficult time getting her idea off the ground. “Even though I had the idea and the skills, I lacked funds. And it was hard for me to get them,” explains Maharjan. She was rejected by multiple banks when she applied for loans because she did not own property to use as collateral.

Women in Nepal often face the kinds of problems that Maharjan had to face during her initial days—a finding that has been borne out by several studies. When a team at SAWTEE (South Asian Watch on Trade, Economics & Environment) studied the constraints faced by women in micro, small and medium enterprises in five different districts, including Kathmandu, they found that most “women entrepreneurs resort to their own funds or informal credit sources, which in some ways restrict their business expansion.” Neelu Thapa, Programme Coordinator at SAWTEE and a personnel involved in the study, says that many women had not taken out a loan because of “procedural hassles.” “Most women do not have property in their names, and since banks demand a guarantee, loans become near impossible to procure. Many women entrepreneurs have relied on self-investment, which is why it becomes hard for them to scale up,” says Thapa.

Additionally, FWEAN (The Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Associations of Nepal), an organisation working for the socio-economic empowerment of women entrepreneurs since 2013, also considers the hassle to access finance as a major struggle for women entrepreneurs in Nepal. “It is a common issue,” says Anamika Singh Bhandary, Executive Director at FWEAN.  The organisation currently has more than a hundred women entrepreneurs as members, and Bhandary believes that most of them faced the same problem when they started.

To be sure, there have been policies to ease borrowing for women. FWEAN was one of the members to lobby the government for Women Entrepreneurship Development Fund in 2012, which provides low-interest loans of up to Rs 5 lakhs to women aiming to start a new business. “But that does not help these businesses grow,” says Bhandary. They need more help than they have been getting to get past the early stages. There are also several such policies that have been introduced by the government, especially in the agriculture sector, yet the information has not reached the right people, according to Bhandary. “For example, the government recently introduced women-friendly tractors for agricultural development, but we found that most people are unaware of the policy,” she says.

It’s not just the lack of implementation of policies that have proved an impediment to women; women entrepreneurs also have to put up with society’s patriarchal mindset. “People tend to trust men more than women when it comes to doing business,” says Bhandary. 

Two other women entrepreneurs, Aayusha Shrestha and Bhintuna “Jya-Poo”, have faced similar problems. Shrestha, who is currently in her late 20s, runs a conceptual line of Nepali hand-crafted jewellery—AAMO by Aayusha Shrestha—which requires delicate finishing touches of skilled craftsmanship. While she elegantly designs all of her products, the physical work is done by craftsmen. During her startup phase, when she had gone with her male friend to negotiate with the craftsmen, she noticed that even though she was the one addressing them, they answered to only her friend as if she were not there. “It felt like a very gender-based reaction,” says Shrestha. “It was something I had to overcome.”

Bhintuna’s venture, Bhav Products, manufactures stationery items, mostly notebooks. To produce them, she needs tons of paper. As with Shrestha, when she had to find the raw materials for her notebooks, she took a male friend to the wholesaler’s. Again, even though she was the ‘boss’, she realised that the wholesalers wouldn’t attend to her. “They would answer my friend’s questions more than mine,” says Bhintuna.

Then there are also other strictures that come into play. For example, people working nine-to-five jobs get to work according to a certain schedule, but when you are an entrepreneur, you need to be able to work odd hours.    “But as a woman, society expects you to be home on time,” says Maharjan. Santoshi Rana, founder of Bihani Social Venture, says that sometimes she feels like she needs to get home at seven in the evening because of the social pressure. Her female employees also get calls from their parents when they work past the usual office hours. On top of that, these challenges are greater when you are a married woman. “When you marry someone in Nepal, you don’t only marry the husband, you marry the entire family,” says Rana. Social responsibilities increase with marriage and continue increasing once you have children. There is also a social distinction in Nepali culture according to which husbands are expected to be the bread-winners, while women are supposed to stay at home, taking care of the family, according to Rana. Work-family balance then becomes an issue on a woman’s entrepreneurial journey. “One woman shared with me that the only way women could become dedicated entrepreneurs was after their kids had grown older,” says Bhandary.

Patriarchy then, may be an important contributor to there being a lack of women entrepreneurs in Nepal. According to a report published by SAWTEE, the number of registered women entrepreneurs is only around 30,000, which accounts for 0.1 per cent of the total population. This report was based on data taken from the International Finance Corporation in 2013. “The data is a bit sketchy,” says Thapa. “But there aren’t many women entrepreneurs for sure.”

Due to the lack of Nepali women entrepreneurs, it also becomes a challenge for potential women entrepreneurs to find enough able women mentors. “The cases I’ve read about and the women I have met so far have always mentioned that their successes could be attributed to either their fathers or husbands,” says Shrestha. “There are women with supportive families who become entrepreneurs after marriage, but starting out can be exceedingly difficult for someone who wants to start a venture at a young age and has no support.”

It is important to keep in mind, though, that the possibilities for Nepali women entrepreneurs have started improving. “Although change is slow, changes are evident,” says Bhandary. More programmes are being organised, both by NGOs and INGOs, that cater to women empowerment in business. Associations such as FWEAN and programmes like the Women Rural Enterprise Acceleration Program (WREAP) have been involved in improving networking and business skills of women entrepreneurs.

Despite various societal pressures, many dedicated women have been able to strike out on their own and create a name for themselves. Shrestha and Bhintuna have proven that women can start doing business at a young age, and women like Rana and Maharjan have shown that age is only a number. The success these women have achieved proves that they will not sell themselves short. Trials such as work-family balance are inevitable, but enduring, and overcoming, the challenges are also what make them well-equipped to run a business.

* First published in M&SVMAG 

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Guest Friday, 18 August 2017