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The biggest barrier to women in Libya is not what you’d expect

Women in Libya are silently contributing to the nation's economy, but the biggest barrier to their business growth is the lack of finance and support.

For years, Libya has made global headlines for its political strife. The oil-rich country has a rich an varied ancient history, but since the end of the 42-year rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the nation has mostly faced a power vacuum and instability.

While women’s rights and gender parity have taken a back seat in Libya during trying times, now the nation is shining a light on these issues.

Women and the Libyan economy

According to the IMF, Libya’s informal economy makes up 35 to 45% of the GDP, as is the case in most developing economies. In OECD countries, this figures is usually 14 to 16%. Regional think tanks and non-governmental organizations struggle to find reliable data on Libya’s informal economy, but recent figures suggest that women are the most active in this sector than any other.

Libya’s informal economy

A paper by Libyan NGO, Jusoor Center for Studies and Development in April this year tackles the most common barriers to progress for women in Libya, interviewing female business owners in Tripoli, Benghazi, Yefren, and Sebha.

According to the research, the biggest barrier for women in business is the lack of financial support. Libya’s private sector has faced multiple issues since political unrest hit the nation. Female empowerment took a back-seat as a result.

The reform measure of the 1990s helped women in Libya participate more actively in the private sector, mainly in private schools. However, the biggest impact women in Libya had on the economy came from home-based and unofficial businesses, such as fashion in the way of embroidery, sewing and tailoring catering and event management, and work in salons and bakeries.

After 2011, when the country faced the most upheaval, women’s initiatives grew but remained small in scale as informal micro-businesses.

These businesses have reduced poverty and helped Libya’s economy tick along during conflict. This impact wasn’t recorded in official indicators, however, and women still remain outside the ‘formal’ economy.

Women-led businesses face blocks

According to Jusoor, women-led businesses have a smaller chance to grow, even though they contribute to the wider survival and strength of Libya, and still, offers the nation opportunities to create more jobs.

During the discussions with female business owners in Tripoli, Benghazi, Yefren, and Sebha, Jusoor found that the main barriers for women in Libyan are the high costing of starting an ‘official’ business,  the lack of financial help from banks, and the lack of training opportunities for them to scale their businesses.

Refreshingly, contrary to western reports, 70% of the surveyed businesswomen disagreed that there were social barriers to work, and 60% disagreed that family obligations held them back.

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A call for change

The surveyed women in Libya called for changes to legislation, greater access to financing and technical support to help them grow their ventures.

They also called for business incubators to help support their growth, as well efforts to raise awareness around women in business.

While social and cultural factors are not the main barriers for  hinders women inclusion in the economic activities, the fact remains that women are still not included in high-profile, decision-making roles

Initiatives to boost female economic empowerment

Last week, the Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum (WEEF) was launched by MENA-OECD Competitiveness Program in Cairo. The program aims to increase women’s economic potential and participation to build more inclusive and prosperous societies.

A more Libya-focused workshop, held at the Faculty of Tourism in Misrata looked at how to include women in business.

Organized jointly by the Ayadi Khayreya organization and the Misrata Business Center for Support of Small and Medium Enterprises, the workshop aimed to engage businesswomen in the city and support them in the labor market as well as promoting their projects.

According to the organizers, this is just the beginning. Future workshops will involve the Department of Promotion, Marketing and others government entities, forging an entry for women in these visible sectors.

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