Photo: Sergei Gapon for UNDP Belarus

Women empowerment is a global issue which finds its place in the universal Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 to provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet from now into the future. As of today, 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men worldwide. Of 189 economies assessed in 2018, 104 economies still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs, 59 economies have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, and in 18 economies, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.

Women in Belarus have special grace. 38 % of employed women have higher education and play a vital role in business environments. At the same time women represent a smaller share of the entrepreneur population.

SDGs targets by Inequalities, including the economic gender gap, are behind the fact that Belarus loses 6.4% of its human development potential (UNDP Human Development Report 2019). According to the World Bank’s Business Environment and Enterprise Performance Survey (BEEPs), 43.6% of businesses in Belarus are owned by women. However, the experts of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development suggest that a considerable proportion of “women-owned” businesses are not, in fact, run by women. They do not hold managerial roles and hardly make key decisions about their business.

Global data reflects that empowering women to participate equally in the global economy could add US$28 trillion in GDP growth by 2025. This is a considerable resource towards achieving SDGs targets by 2030

“Women’s contribution to the economic development in Belarus can be significant and has enormous untapped potential,” said Alexandra Solovieva, UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus. “Support to women entrepreneurship has a strategic importance to address unemployment and poverty in the rural areas of Belarus and can shape more dynamic, diverse and resilient economy. In this light, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are important vehicles for women’s economic empowerment, especially in the regions.”

Belarus is attributing significant efforts for development to SMEs with full understanding that businesses create new jobs for local communities, support infrastructure development and boost services, attract youth and ultimately increase living standards. SMEs accounted for 24.6% of GDP in 2018, however, they are poorly presented in Belarus’ regions. Women-owned enterprises there tending to be smaller in size and achieve smaller growth rates.

SMEs development in the regions is often attributed to prejudices in women’s roles in private sector and characterized by individual, social, economic and cultural barriers that affect economic behavior and career choices of women.

Women face a specter of challenges on their way towards starting and growing their own business. According to the research done by UNDP in Belarus and the Behavioral Insights Team, one of the main barriers to women setting up their own business is the lack of own confidence framed by negative stereotypes surrounding a women’s ability to run a business.

Another issue is about money. Women often face inequality in accessing loans and financial services. For women who apply for financial assets the probability of loan rejection is 55% higher than for men. This may be because women tend to open business in less productive, lower profit sectors. Top small business industries for women in Belarus include retail (29,0%), manufacturing (10,1%) medical and social services (8,7%), hotel and catering (8,7%), construction (7,3%).

Women are hit harder by economic impacts caused by COVID-19 (Gender equality and the COVID-19 outbreak in Belarus, UN in Belarus). As providers of services in small-businesses, women remain under-employed, being left with a drastic reduction of earnings. Along with COVID-19, the political crisis, caused by the 2020 Presidential elections, added to the low level of confidence of women in starting their business.

Together with national and development partners, UNDP undertake every effort to eradicate obstacles and ensure women are more active in entrepreneurial activities in Belarus. UNDP’s strategy aims at better understanding of the roots and causes, including behavioral aspects of limited women engagement in SMEs, finding solutions and creating enabling environment to break down the key barriers

A robust and inclusive support network and mentoring are essential for entrepreneurial success. It's no surprise that many women link a lack of confidence to a lack of available advisors and mentors that limit their professional growth. That is why UNDP joins hands with the UK Government and VISA company to facilitate knowledge-and innovation-sharing and building of professional networks among women entrepreneurs.

In November 2019 - February 2020, women from small towns and rural areas attended the series of expert-led workshops for rural women that advised on issues related to business marketing, HR management, new business models and access to finances. Around 15% of the participants owns an entrepreneurial venture. Business ambitions and desire to grow of the participants are fueled by the necessity to improve their household livelihoods, raise children with a better standard of living, be economically independent and secured. Most of their businesses tend to be small, employ few people and generate modest revenues.

The trainings demonstrated that whenever women are informed on demand, profits, size and longevity of business activities they become self-encouraged to challenge business in profitable sectors.

In a long-term perspective UNDP in Belarus engages itself in developing a set of regulatory measures and incentives to incorporate a gender perspective in the national entrepreneurship programmes a focus on supporting women’s entrepreneurship in the regions.

According to UNDP’s Gender Social Norm Index (GSNI) released earlier this year, close to 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against women – providing clues to the invisible barriers that women face when it comes to achieving equality. UNDP continues to work with national, local and international partners on applying a holistic approach to address these inter-connected and complex barriers at the regional level. It can be done through creating systemic changes aimed at reducing inequality and discrimination against women, strengthening the role of women in non-traditional sector, expanding women’s economic opportunities and promoting women’s participation in decision-making levels in public and private sectors.

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