Destruction, displacement, and loss of lives and livelihoods affect men and women alike. But conflict often leaves women to carry the double burden of economic and familial responsibility in the absence of men who are imprisoned, disabled, or dead. While society reconstructs itself, these women must make life-altering economic decisions: to invest, to sell assets, to stay in rural areas or move to the city, or to leave camps and look for economic opportunities elsewhere. Providing women with access to information and with entry points to formal and informal job networks are crucial steps toward social and economic inclusion. The following lessons from societies undergoing reconstruction can be applied in many areas of the world which are also in transition.

From Afghanistan

The success of female entrepreneurs is essential for post-conflict economic stabilization and revival. Financial institutions must tailor services to women and promote women’s access to finance. Women who can no longer rely on steady earnings from the male head of household during hardship must often make ends meet by engaging in informal micro-income-generating activities. First Microfinance Bank of Afghanistan (FMBA) demonstrated how banks can reach out to women in need of these micro-income loans when it developed a group lending product exclusively for women in 2006. The product targeted the increasing number of women in the labor force as a result of the conflict, as well as the increase in female-headed households. According to recent statistics, 16 percent of FMBA’s borrowers are women, many of them war widows.

From Liberia

An early gender-focused baseline survey can help government formalize women’s participation in national reconstruction efforts. In 2007, the World Bank Group surveyed the barriers to enterprise formalization in Liberia. The survey confirmed that women business owners are more likely than their male counterparts to own informal enterprises and that this was due in part to the unequal treatment of men and women during business registration. Following the survey, the government recognized the need to address this inequality and identified business associations to disseminate information about formalization as a first step.

From the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Post-conflict legal reform initiatives may facilitate changes to existing gender-discriminatory legislation. In the DRC, discriminatory provisions in the Family Code require married women to obtain marital authorization to go to court in a civil case, to buy and sell property, or to enter into commercial obligations such as starting a business; banks generally also require co-signature or approval from husbands if women are to obtain loans. A Microfinance Law passed two years ago retains the need for spousal permission for married women to take out a microfinance loan. These are among the steepest obstacles women face in seeking access to finance. A new draft Family Code, which could remove these constraints, is expected to go before the National Assembly for approval later this year. Other potential reforms in the pipeline are a draft Labor Code that could remove provisions related to restricted working hours for women.

From Iraq

Women entrepreneurs can benefit from training and business mentoring in safe environments that accommodate the challenges of physical access. In 2006, Iraq’s interim coalition government agreed to provide women with a quota of the contracts for reconstruction, which led to a growth of women-owned small-and-medium enterprises. To provide entrepreneurship/management training safely, additional transport and security costs were allocated so that the Iraqi women could be trained safely in Amman, Jordan, in conjunction with the Iraqi International Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Jordan Forum for Business and Professional Women.

Adapted from “Creating Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs in Conflict-Affected Countries,” an IFC SmartLesson by Mark Blackden, Carmen Niethammer, and Henriette von Kaltenborn-Stachau.