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Doing Business but Suffering in Silence

According to the World Health Organisation, gender-based violence is a major public health and human rights problem throughout the world. Though the assault is carried on in the privacy of the home, the violation is widely seen as a \"private\" family affair, and for some - a normal part of life.

In Kenya, an estimated 49% of married women were physically abused by their husbands (Borwankar et. al, 2008). Though violence against women mainly occurs in the form of physical and sexual assault; it takes many forms including emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and economic abuse.

Economic abuse includes the controlling of finances; not allowing one's partner to venture into enterprise; taking a partner's money without her permission; denying access to, or knowledge of finances as well as using a partner's finances or credit for personal gain.

Socialization of the girl child

Women entrepreneurs fall victim in part to economic abuse due to familial socialization from the time of birth. From a tender age, socialization which is the process of inheriting norms, customs and ideologies differentiates girls from boys. As boys grow up, they learn to be the head of their future homes as well as being the main (if not only) breadwinners. Girls in turn are socialized to be the home makers and caregivers.

In some settings, a girl’s day starts early. She wakes up to go fetch water and ensure breakfast is ready before she sets off to school. Her brother on the other hand has the luxury of sleeping in. Between the two, the chances of attaining higher grades are in favour of the boy. Then there is the practice of early marriage that dooms young women to lives where they never have the opportunity to actualise their aspirations.

Though education is one way in which women can emancipate themselves from the grip of the culture of male domination, the education system has only served to perpetuate the proposition that women should be more “arts” oriented than their science oriented brothers. Women are under-represented in tertiary institutions where they would have had the opportunity and facilities to hone their entrepreneurial skills. This in turn adversely affects their business growth potential.

McDowell and Pringle (1992) have argued that women are not only constantly defined in relation to men, but are defined as dependent and subordinate to them as well. This has been manifested in the low numbers of women entrepreneurs in “manly” sectors such as manufacturing. Women tend to operate micro service oriented enterprises with low possibilities for growth. The International Finance Corporation in Kenya has found that despite their potential, women-owned businesses which predominate in trade and service sectors, are smaller and less likely to grow.

And, all their early experiences and nurtured perceptions result in some established women entrepreneurs being disempowered when it comes to making independent decisions about how to spend their business profits as well as the direction for their businesses’ growth. Moreover, though many women empowerment programes focus on entrepreneurship development as a means to empower women, they neglect to design and implement ways to address gender based violence towards so-called “empowered” women.

WHO Controls The Purse Strings?

Then there is the issue of who actually “wears the trousers”, or has control of the household or business budget. Though single-motherhood and female headed households are becoming more common, these homes tend to be poorer than male headed homes. According to the International Fund for Agriculture & Development (IFAD), the reasons are that female headed households tend to have a higher dependency ratio in spite of their smaller average size, and also have less access to resources.

An unfortunate trend has also been recognized where there is the self-perpetuating cycle of these women heads of household also causing their daughters to assume the same roles of unpaid house-help and caregivers, whilst their sons are urged to study so they can in future pull the family out of poverty.

Thus the question for development experts is: what is the use of trying to improve women’s livelihoods while such male dominating norms and perceptions continue to thrive?

Ending the silence

Through the emergence of micro-finance pioneered by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, financial institutions and policy makers have come to acknowledge the challenges women entrepreneurs face, not least in accessing loans. However once credit is given, who is to say that the beneficiary can keep to the loan agreement if her partner insists on having if not a share then all of the money?

Lack of access to education and opportunity, and low status are correlated to violence against women. Long term socialisation and inaction has meant that many women do not seek help or report abuse when it occurs. Cultural norms, lack of awareness, community pressure and widespread insensitivity of officials have also contributed to the fact that the majority of women who are abused suffer in silence.

Though the educational system needs to take into consideration the inequalities of the girl child when they enroll in school, it is ultimately most vital that there is a committed move to strengthen policy and legal frameworks to recognize economic abuse and outlaw all forms of gender based violence.

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