Women's History Month: How much progress have we made?

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Although women have been voting in the United States since securing the right in 1920, it took massive courage and willpower to achieve this goal. Women lobbied outside the White House and were imprisoned for their efforts. One woman even died in jail for the cause. This was only 92 years ago.
 
In the 1970s women entrepreneurship exploded and became a major factor in the economy, but information about the demographics, locations and other pertinent details was not recorded until 1992. Additionally, until recently, banks required women to have a man sign his name whenever we wanted a loan, which ended on Oct. 25, 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Women’s Business Ownership Act (H.R. 5050). I witnessed this historic event at the White House while following efforts to lobby for the change.
 
Let’s  look additionally at the efforts being made by our counterparts in other countries. I want to speak specifically about Rwanda and Afghanistan, two countries assisted directly by the organization I created and serve as CEO for, the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women (IEEW), based in Oklahoma City.
 
In some ways, women in Afghanistan and Rwanda are 75 to 100 years behind us in the struggle for equal rights. In other areas they are on similar levels as American women, which means there are still discrepancies that need to be addressed. The hardships faced by Afghan and Rwandan women are overwhelming – they are oppressed, marginalized and often impoverished. Just a few years ago, the Taliban prevented Afghan women from even voting, and the group still discourages women from becoming entrepreneurs.
 
Freshta Hazeq, whom we at IEEW assisted through our PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS® Program, a business training and mentorship program for women entrepreneurs in Rwanda and Afghanistan, is a woman who has dealt with such oppression. Wanting to break through barriers placed on women in Afghanistan, Freshta mentored at an Oklahoma City printing company for one week. After she won a large bid for her company in Afghanistan, which was previously held by a male counterpart, someone convinced her male workers to sabotage her work and enlisted the Taliban to burn her plant to the ground. Undeterred, Freshta is rebuilding her company, which remains the only woman-owned printing shop in Afghanistan.
 
The determination of Freshta and other women, combined with our assistance, have resulted in significant economic, social and political improvements that are making a difference in their countries and by extension, for women throughout the world. Despite having little data on women entrepreneurs in Rwanda and Afghanistan, what is known shows tremendous advances in a relatively short time.
 
For example, 80 percent of our program’s graduates are still in business after six years in the two countries we serve. Compare that to the fact that half of all businesses launched in the United States fail within the first five years, according to the Small Business Administration, and you realize how significant that achievement really is.
 
Simultaneously, Afghan and Rwandan women are building a strong policy agenda in their business communities, expanding their presence and power in the political realm. There is a woman governor in one Afghan province, and despite its history of oppression, Rwanda leads all countries with the highest number of elected women officials. In fact, President Paul Kagame appointed three PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS® graduates (and business owners) to the Rwanda parliament.
 
Women encounter much injustice every day worldwide living their lives, much less establishing and prospering with their own businesses. But they are moving forward in business and politics in the face of intimidating odds. Women everywhere deserve our respect and appreciation, for they are bringing the changes our society as a whole needs for long-term success. Let’s celebrate women during International Women’s History Month, and thank the men and women who have helped empower women as well.

Neese is the CEO, president and co-founder of the Institute of Economic Empowerment of Women (IEEW).