Female Social Entrepreneurship in Iraqi Business is Not New

By: Mehrunisa Qayyum

Female Iraqi Social Entrepreneurship Is Not New
“Women are the barometer of success,” emphasizes Manal Omar, who has undertaken several trips each to Iraq’s many provinces as the US Institute for Peace Director of Iraq, Iran and North Africa. Many non-profits raise awareness about women’s rights. In fact, female Iraqi social entrepreneurship on women’s empowerment is not a new trend. In 1993, Iraqi-American, Zainab Salbi, co-founded Women for Women International to counsel and rape victims and war widows. However, local Iraqis, like Susan Arif Maroof and Zainab Sadeq Jaafar inject their professional experience and passion into ensuring peace in Iraqi homes. Specifically, the Al-Mustaqbal Center for Women and Women Empowerment Organization (WEO), led by human rights activist Susan Arif Maroof, link the non-profit model to the community’s needs. The US Institute for Peace (USIP), the United Nations Development Programme, and the European Union recognize how the third sector merges the non-profit model with innovation. Iraq presents a case study of how Arab females apply their education and professional background to tackle violence on the ground in Iraq as well as provide support services to rebuild civil society, the family, and the confidence to move forward post-conflict growth of local Iraqi institutions. This is valuable education for Iraqi women, as getting access to higher education can be difficult in some areas of the country. Foreign education in business schools may prove to be too costly, and business programs from online colleges may also be difficult to access for many Iraqis. The WEO’s business training courses are helping to shape the future of female Iraqi business education and entrepreneurship.

On December 6th, USIP hosted Iraqi female social entrepreneurs to present on “Women Fighting for Peace in Iraq” and explore how tackling gender and post-conflict challenges better promotes women and households politically, economically, and thereby, socially. For over seven years, USIP has worked in Iraq and structures its engagement efforts by “supporting the growth of local Iraqi institutions”. Rather than designing programs and managing its entire life cycle, USIP employs a more networked approach that identifies local experts and specialists. Hence, about 18 of the 90 USIP Iraqi funded projects focus on peer learning and knowledge sharing among women and other Iraqi minorities.

Matching the Organizational Mission to the Right Grant
Triangulating between the organizational mission to the donor mission back to the target population presents a challenge and warrants strong messaging. For example, Jaafar explains that “Violence emanates from the man, so we have to have projects that make him aware of this circumstance,” as the documentary “Be Tender with Flasks” closes. Jafaar is an attorney and activist who procured donor funding to produce the documentary “Be Tender with Flasks”. Procuring funding for such projects, especially film, emerges as a challenge when many aspects of society require rebuilding, and thereby compete for funding. Thus, the 20 minute film speaks to how combatting violence against women is a “pre-requisite to peace building” in Iraq. USIP’s strategic priorities on Iraq includes “promoting moderation and reconciliation”, which emerged from discussions with local Iraqi activists. Similarly, Jafaar addressed the Soros Foundation’s goal to decrease violence against women in rural areas. As a result, Al Mustaqbal received almost $50,000.

In the second case, Maroof manages WEO to 1) operate a mobile health clinic, 2) provide a telephone hotline, and 3) coordinate training the trainers to complete the cycle on community engagement. WEO based in Erbil, Iraq. WEO’s aims to promote Women’s and human rights, gender equity, economic engagement and political participation, and elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Often, many women’s organizations consist primarily of women. The challenge is recruiting men to engage in women’s issues while believing that the women’s issues go beyond gender. Women’s issues relate to their role in raising the human development index back to pre-war and pre-sanction levels. Consequently, both organizations enlist Iraqi males, like imams, to combat violence against women. The innovation by both models rejects that religious figures should remain absent from secular organizations. Consequently, their grant applications appealed to USIP’s goal to “enhance women’s access to justice in Iraq.”

Moreover, WEO’s project staff conducted eight workshops for 160 policemen judges, lawyer, religious leaders as well members of the general public. They share in disseminating 500 booklets and brochures to address domestic violence. Both USIP funded institutions acknowledge the social, political, and religious dimensions of violence. Jaafar elaborates on her observation that the cycle of violence in the home extends from the violence perpetrated on the battlefield and related security threats. Economic uncertainty and social factors, like unemployment directly contribute to domestic violence. This link should not be ignored as she asserts that “there’s nothing soft about forcing demobilizing solders to desist from domestic violence” a trend in post-Conflict Iraq.

Iraqi Social Entrepreneurs Grow Other Businesses Too
“Your success is our business” articulates Maroof such that the WEO model empowers women and youth to “strengthen them economically” as well. As such, WEO offers business counseling services and includes business training that ranges from agribusiness to advanced computer courses. For Iraqi women that want to emulate Maroof’s social entrepreneurial model, they may take “Proposal Writing”, “Reporting Skills”, or “Monitoring & Evaluation” training courses. For Iraqi women ready for private entrepreneurship, WEO offers “How to Start or Improve a Business” training course. Ultimately, all participants may enlist in “Business Association Management” as a way to support the growth of local Iraqi institutions.

Among WEO other accomplishments, Maroof is pleased that WEO has been identified as a regional resource to provide information in small business development. After reviewing their website, which includes a range of social network tools to engage those beyond its base in Erbil, other workbooks may be downloaded by anyone looking to start a local business. Looking forward, WEO is working on other grants to implement advanced managerial training courses to meet the next level of societal demands.

Essentially, film, PSAs, trainer programs for law enforcement, and domestic violence awareness programs coupled with basic/advanced computer courses, women’s health clinics and services catapult Iraqi women activists’ entrepreneurial vision to match the needs of Iraqi households. From both a non-profit and profit standpoint: Iraqi households operate as the fundamental unit of rebuilding a society, and ultimately, an economy. Perhaps that is why a cartoon simulation shows an Iraqi girl handing her mother a pamphlet while an Arabic narrator emphasizes that legal help and training are available to Iraqi women.

The US completed its withdrawal from Iraq, which will prompt further debate about the economic, political and social costs and benefits. As international financial institutions and banks track Iraq’s oil output and world prices, others will speculate about Iraq’s investment climate based on other indicators. Such indicators reflect on the civil society development across institutions and household by tracking the rate of violence and treatment of women. As local Iraqi social entrepreneurs leverage their organizations to engage in mitigating violence, donors will observe that grant types will need to adjust from “peace and conflict” to “human development” and, perhaps phase out as the private sector engages in a development environment–not a “post-conflict” one. Revisiting Omar’s statement, that “women are barometer of success” of a post-conflict society, the Iraq case of female entrepreneurs present another insight. One could add that women’s ability to replicate models of success, like Jaafar and Maroof, in any society indicates success, and thereby, may foreshadow a healthy investment climate. For those who remain wary, review WEO’s provincial market assessments. To reiterate the Business for Social Responsibility’s report: once women are empowered, they are more likely to invest locally, and thereby contribute economically.

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Filed under Analysis, Interests, PIDE (Policy, International Development & Economics)

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