Working women are a boon for the economy. As studies by the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund show, their economic integration has many long-term benefits for the labor force and job creation. This research also indicates that more women at work means a boost to enterprise development and GDP growth.
Women's economic activity, however, remains low in many developing countries. Economists believe it is a missed opportunity. Data from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) shows that in most Central Asian countries, less than a quarter of all small and medium enterprises are owned or managed by women. According to World Bank Indicators (2009), women make up 44.1% of the labor force in Tajikistan and 42.2% in Kyrgyzstan. So there is still considerable untapped potential. A few reasons are often given. One is that doing business requires knowledge, skills and financing, which women often lack. They also have more difficulty setting up and running businesses than men. And this partly explains why they are underrepresented. Some economists view this as a market failure since increasing women's involvement benefits the economy as a whole, and small and medium businesses run by women are often more profitable than those managed by men. But considering that a high percentage of the population in Central Asia lives in rural areas, it is rural women who are mostly economically inactive. Employment opportunities for them in particular can spur further economic development.
International research, donor and development organizations are now paying more attention to this issue. As a result, a number of initiatives have been launched in recent years to boost women's role in the economy and public life. Much effort is focused on rural women in Central Asian countries. For example, all new programs, including the Dryland Systems, of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have a clear strategy on gender and youth.
Rural women, most of whom are stay-at-home mothers, mainly work in farming or make homemade knitwear and woven products for sale at local markets and occasionally abroad. But their earning power is limited. Women artisans, for example, lack skills and access to markets to increase their incomes. And sometimes raw materials of poor quality make things worse. A recent four-year project funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and implemented by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), is one of the efforts to have addressed this problem. It was launched in 2009 and targeted rural women artisans and small livestock breeders in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Iran. The project increased employment opportunities and income options for poor rural populations, particularly women, by introducing improved production, processing and export of value-added fiber. The outcome is that women artisans' profits rose nearly sevenfold in some cases. What is more, marketing channels are now in place to sell raw and finished products abroad. Two US-based companies Knit Outta the Box and Clothroads help local suppliers to reach buyers in the USA and Europe. Products like high-quality mohair yarn, blankets and carpets have already found their first customers. SPINNA, a UK-based non-profit organization, has also been working with a UN project in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to increase the competitiveness of the clothing and textiles sector since 2009. It helps women entrepreneurs in the fashion and textiles industry. Seeing much potential in the region, SPINNA plans to establish hubs in each Central Asian country, as well as Afghanistan.
In rural households, however, many women also either run or work on farms. Women employed in farming face problems of their own. Most know little or nothing about best practices and sustainable management in agriculture. So training women farmers and helping them in other ways such as accessing finance is important. Better policies and more government incentives are also needed. For example, in some countries land rights are still an issue. UN Women, an organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, puts much effort into dealing with this. The organization has been working to ensure women's access to land since 2001 and has since expanded through a number of programs in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. A land reform project by the USAID, a US development agency, also assists ten legal aid centers that provide farmers, mainly women, with information on their rights though training and workshops in Tajikistan. This helps them to protect their rights through advisory, mediation and representation services on land-related disputes.
Success in one place could and should be replicated in another. Central Asian countries have a lot in common and would benefit from increased regional cooperation. More networks of women groups and organizations need to be established. In July 2011, the US Department of State and a number of other organizations held the Strategies for Success: Central Asia and Afghanistan Women's Economic Symposium in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The event helped to kick off a regional initiative, which aims to increase women's economic opportunities and expand cross-border cooperation between women in Central Asia and Afghanistan. As a result, a Steering Committee was elected from businesswomen and civil society experts from the region to help coordinate ongoing support by the US government, national governments, and donor and private sector partners. And a number of follow-up activities in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, such as grants and study tours to the US, were worked out.
One of them is a one-year program funded by the US embassy in Uzbekistan. CACAARI, the Central Asia and the Caucasus Association of Agricultural Research Institutions, started implementing this program in 2013 in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources (MAWR) of Uzbekistan, the Uzbek Scientific Production Center for Agriculture, and Tashkent State Agrarian University. The program targets specifically women farmer groups, and aims to establish information and advisory extension centers, which will serve as hubs of information and professional skills development for women farmers in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, as well as the Caucasus. The program team recently helped to set up one such center at Tashkent State Agrarian University. Women farmers and entrepreneurs can now get free qualified advice and consultation on issues ranging from improving farming businesses and expanding production to entering new markets in the region. For tech-savvy women, the center maintains regularly updated websites at www.agrowebcee.net/awuz/ and www.agriculture.uz. The center also offers training tailored to specific needs. Following an extensive survey of women farmers' needs on 450 farms in Uzbekistan, CACAARI, ICARDA and MAWR arranged the first training course for 40 leading women farmers at the center on 20-21 November 2013.These women are expected to train over 120 other women farmers in their regions. The program intends to organize courses like this in Fergana and Samarkand, Uzbekistan. CACAARI is now planning more similar programs in the region to disseminate this experience. After all, the ultimate goal is to replicate success in other countries and foster regional cooperation between women farmers and entrepreneurs. The good thing is that these farmer women are keen to learn and develop. What they need is a little help.