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BEIRUT: Arab women entrepreneurs and business-owners are ahead of their Western counterparts with regards to firm size and revenue levels, according to a report published Tuesday. The International Finance Cooperation (IFC) has launched a report giving insight into the role of women business owners in the Middle East, declaring it as "the first step" toward a deeper understanding of their role, characteristics and challenges. The report, conducted in collaboration with the World Bank and the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR), reveals the extent of growth of women as business owners, and the constraints that they are facing.

"There is a marked lack of quantitative information on the number and growth of women-owned enterprises with which to inform policy-making," stated the report. "This is coupled with a growing need for qualitative survey-based attitudinal information capturing the self-expressed viewpoints, concerns, challenges and needs of women business owners. It is known that in the region women enjoy high levels of formal education, yet their participation in the labor force is still low, and not much is known about women who own and operate their own enterprises."

Mary Peschka, the senior operations manager of the IFC told The Daily Star that the main obstacles faced by women are parallel to those faced by men in the region. "The obstacles faced by women in the Middle East are similar to those faced by men such as access to capital, the high cost of public services and business registration," she said. "In North America and Western Europe for example, we do not face the same hurdles when registering companies as they do here."

"They are ahead of their Western counterparts with regards to revenue level and firm size, but honestly I could not answer why at the moment. This is an indication that while this opens the door to what needs to happen, it also highlights certain factors that need further analysis," Peschka added.

The report is divided into sections, tackling each nation in the Middle East and North Africa. The Lebanon section, which faced problems when gathering information due to the summer 2006 war, highlighted the fact that many women work in the trade and service industry, with 35.1 percent working in retail and wholesale. It also stated that the majority of women in Lebanon worked in SMEs, totaling at 48.7 percent of the women surveyed. According to the report, this is due primarily to Lebanon's location, which enables the business owners to have greater access to foreign markets and modern technology.

The report points out several issues that prevent women from advancing further in the world of business in the Middle East. For one, access to finance seems to pose more of a problem for women than men. "Very few of the women surveyed, a much lower share than is found in other regions of the world, are utilizing formal bank credit. Instead, they are financing the growth of their businesses by relying upon personal savings, investment from private sources such as family and friends, and the reinvestment of business earnings."

The issue of finance comes as a result of lack of proper financial training, a problem specific to the Middle East. "There are a lot of women who have sought external financing and do not have bank credit and this makes securing finance harder," explained Peschka. "Here they do not have the exposure to financial skills training ... The wider issue is the fact that they do not have access to other practical business skills in order to put together proposals to push forward to financial institutions." Training in specific areas is a must for these business women in order to gain capital and enable their companies to grow, without depending solely on personal investments.

Another issue that stands in the way for women is that of culture and tradition. Although the report did not delve too deeply into this factor, Peschka admitted that it should be considered as significant. "It is impossible not have a cultural influence in the business world, and obviously women in the Middle East will share the same cultural characteristics," she said. "There are definitely certain countries which need special consideration for women business owners." Yemen is one such country she referred to. The IFC was forced to find an alternative way to train women business owners in small to medium enterprises (SMEs) as women there preferred to be in single sexed training. "At the moment it is too early to say whether or not this may be a hindrance or an advantage for the women, but there are always issues surrounding single-sexed education/training," said Peschka.

Gender and women workers' specialist, Simel Esim from the International Labor Organization, confirmed that gender is a large factor in the lives of women business owners. "Gender and rights perspectives are missing usually [when providing support for poor women entrepreneurs]," she said. "There is a deficit of understanding of rights, and of knowledge of gender/power relations in society (including issues like forced/early marriage, lack of control over reproductive decisions, gender based violence, harassment, discrimination etc.)"

"Yes, women have practical needs, but also strategic ones that help position them as leaders, as agents of their own change, not for the benefit of being good mothers, but for themselves, for their own empowerment."

The interesting fact for Peschka when conducting research for the report was the recurring theme of optimism among women business owners. "Women in the region are optimistic of the growth of their national economies, and they saw their gender as a net positive to the growth of their business," she said. "In Lebanon, after the summer 2006 war with Israel, 49 percent of the women surveyed are planning to grow."

A recommendation offered by the report to boost the growth of women businesses in Lebanon was to allow greater access to the markets. "After the recent war in Lebanon, women business owners are in need of decreasing accumulated debt. Business-women associations can help promote women's access to markets by setting up a 'commercial center' to promote the products of businesswomen."
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