We had great difficulty finding any married female business owners—and learned that under national laws, a married woman couldn’t register a company, open a bank account, operate a business, or own property without the prior written consent of her husband.
We found women had no independent access to financing, skills training, or justice, nor any laws criminalizing domestic violence. They lacked legal and physical security, were barred from significantly contributing to economic growth, and had little or no voice in shaping the future even of their own households.
Laws, and husbands, often barred women from working certain hours or in particular professions. Profits and assets were legally the husband’s property. Even when women had permission and were able to register their businesses, they lacked access to collateral, credit, and financing—so their businesses couldn’t grow.
For years, we hadn’t noticed all this, in large part because we had failed to ask the right questions. Now we had to do something about it.
From 2011-2014, our Trade & Competitiveness team, partnering with Women, Business and the Law, worked with national partners to draft a new Family Code that would improve the business climate for women, lifting multiple constraints on women’s participation and productivity and raising the minimum age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18.
That draft code, which addresses numerous aspects of commerce and civil rights, now awaits final approval for implementation, with a coalition of champions led by the Prime Minister.
At the same time, while designing new operations to promote entrepreneurship and competitiveness, we made special efforts to support female-owned businesses—such as holding information sessions and opening service counters during hours that were convenient for women with children.
“Build a public transport or sanitation system that’s safe and accessible for women and children as well as men, for caregivers pushing strollers, grocery carts, or wheelchairs, and you’ve simply built a better system—which vastly more people will use.”
We also enlisted other Bank Group resources—the Gender Innovation Labs and Women’s Leadership in Small and Medium Enterprise (WLSME) project—to gauge the impact of our efforts, which in turn spawned childcare and training initiatives. Early indications are positive.
DRC still has numerous development challenges, but last year it ranked among top reformers, with GDP projected to grow 10.3 percent in 2015 and inflation low enough to make it one of the fastest-growing, most investment attractive economies in the world.
The issues we encountered in DRC weren’t unique. Legal and regulatory barriers to women’s entrepreneurship and economic participation are common even where gender equality is legally enshrined.
Bank Group research has found more than 200 million women live in countries where they need their husband’s permission to start a business—while 70 percent of women don’t have a bank account in their own name, and less than 5 percent of loans for SMEs go to women-owned businesses. The global credit gap for women-owned SMEs—critical drivers of growth and engines of job creation—is estimated at some US$300 billion.
From Maldives to Mexico and Mozambique, the Bank Group and its partners are increasingly asking about just such issues with an eye toward lifting legal, social, and business constraints not just holding back half the world’s population, but effectively all of it.
The benefits of approaching development with an eye toward gender equality are broad and concrete. Build a public transport or sanitation system that’s safe and accessible for women and children as well as men, for caregivers pushing strollers, grocery carts, or wheelchairs, and you’ve simply built a better system—which vastly more people will use.
Make loans and financial services accessible to men and women, and you’ve probably built a better bank—and a more resilient economy better able to withstand shocks, provide good jobs, and lift more people out of poverty.
Creating 600 million new jobs and ending extreme poverty are big challenges, but approaching them with gender equality in mind, and asking the right questions, might just be the game-changer that gets us there.