Culture affecting women in business

Though most countries in the Southern African Development Community have constitutions that explicitly outlaw discrimination based on sex, strong cultural beliefs mean that in reality many women become economically dependent on men, not by choice.

Even those that are engaged in aspects of business often do not have control over the decisions and earnings that come with it.

Executive Director of the Women’s Lobby in Malawi Faustace Chirwa said in an interview that this is the reason the rich in almost all the countries in the region are men.

It is important to create training programmes and access to support for women entrepreneurs, but we as a society must also look at how gender stereotypes are affecting women in business.

Even women actively engaged in family businesses, often do not control how earnings are spent. Chirwa cites an example common in Malawi, “During tobacco farming, everyone in the family; a father, mother and children work hard in the field, but the man will go alone to the auction floors to sell the tobacco. He does not even consult the woman on how to spend the money,” she said.

Chirwa explained that in case of a man having two women, he takes almost all the money to the younger wife while the elder wife did the work.

She said the woman has no say because culture orders her to be subordinate to a man because he is the head of the family. Traditionally she will not question decisions by a man.

Women are also discouraged from doing business, especially those that involve moving around the country. “They say a woman can not be allowed to spend nights in rest houses when she is doing business because she is a weak character and could easily start prostitution,” she said.

Maria Zamaere, owner of Sapitwa Chemicals Company Limited in Blantyre, also agreed that cultural beliefs have demoralised many women from engaging in business.

“For one to start business, she has to get approval from her husband or men family members. And when they say ‘no’ then she will be in trouble,” she said. She further pointed out that a man does not ask for consent from his wife when he wants to start business.

Zamaere also said that in situations when women become successful in business, the husband often still takes control of the profits and dictates spending.

She also said that men tend to give support to their fellow men because they expect to get something out of it, but rarely come forward to support women entrepreneurs.

Inkosi Mabulabo, a chief and serious custodian of traditional values, defends some of the traditional practices that guide women. Mabulabo said while it is not bad to allow women do businesses, they require guidance on which businesses they should take on.

The chief was totally against allowing women to do business that would find them spending days out of the villages, saying that is risky business.

“You know women are weak characters and they can be easily enticed to do something bad. So what about if they are far from their homes and some men proposition them. The environment there would make them accept,” he said.

Mabulabo, who has been chief since 1967, said women are supposed to be taking care of the children and wondered who would do the job when they are away. When suggested to him that a man could do the job, the chief looked surprised by the question, especially coming from a man journalist.

“Have you learnt about division of labour in your school?” he asked and continued, “a man has to look for food and woman look after the family. Do you expect a man to do both? Are you all right in your brain?”

Asked what type of business a woman should be doing, he said any type that would not make her leave her house.

The chief’s statement contrasts with that of president Bingu wa Mutharika who has appealed to women to stop relying on men financially by starting businesses. Mutharika established Malawi Rural Development Fund (MARDEF) to lend money to people to start businesses.

Ninety-five percent of the beneficiaries are women and that is sour news as far as Inkosi Mabulabo is concerned.

l Edwin Nyirongo writes from Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

August 2006
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