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Julia Roig: What Do Women Social Entrepreneurs Want? Change!

Long after the protest rally ends, women social entrepreneurs can play a key role in bringing about needed reforms.





As we observe Women’s History Month here in the U.S., it’s important to recognize the leadership and contribution of women all over the world, while acknowledging the work that still needs to be done to empower all girls, ensure equal opportunities and respect the rights of all women. Many women have found successful careers in the social sector, combining an entrepreneurial spirit with a commitment to the social good.

Unfortunately, there are many parts of the globe where women are still viewed as second-class citizens, which hampers their contributions to their societies politically and economically. Unlocking this potential requires large-scale change, which implies a disruption of the status quo and a sustained effort to bring about a shift in systems and mentalities within society.

What does it take to bring about that kind of change? At Partners for Democratic Change, we invest in women as social entrepreneurs, believing that having an institutional platform for collective action and cooperative advocacy allows women throughout the world to serve as effective change agents.

As the social entrepreneur network Ashoka has suggested, social entrepreneurs are distinct within civil society because they approach social problems with a business-like mindset, through partnerships and demonstrating results from the “investment”. This is a powerful way to achieve the kind of societal change needed to unlock the potential of women around the world — from human rights and democracy to opportunities for meaningful work and education.

Change Requires More Than Protest

There are many courageous activists who ignite protest to jar societies into change.  Both men and women all over the world are using creative, non-violent tactics out of frustration with leaders and indignation for the lack of respect for their basic human rights, as Srdja Popovic highlights his new book, “Blueprint for Revolution.” People from all walks of life and both genders can find common cause during the sometimes “euphoric” moments of solidarity found in mass protest, but what happens after the rally or march is over?

Once different people have been disturbed by a debate and are primed for concrete action, social entrepreneurs are key actors who can carry on the hard work of sustaining public interest and demonstrating progress towards reforms. For example, after the mass protests in Tunisia that toppled the former authoritarian regime, one of the most pressing issues facing the country was unemployment and dealing with the large informal sector, which affects many Tunisian female workers.

Together with the Global Fairness Initiative (GFI), Partners has been working with amazing women, such as Asma Ben Hassen Darragi, director of GFI’s TILI project, and Chema Gargouri, director of local Tunisian Association for Management and Social Stability (TAMSS). These women and their teams have been doing the hard work of convening a broad national dialogue with industry leaders, labor unions, civil society and government to make recommendations for bringing informal workers into the formal system, which have now been adopted at the highest levels. More importantly, they have created relationships between players who have often been at odds, but who now know they are able to work together productively and peacefully.

Change Requires Finding Connections Within Complexity.

Effective social entrepreneurs recognize the complexity of systems when trying to solve social problems, as a recent Harvard Business Review article noted. Many women are particularly good at serving as conveners to bring people together to address the root causes of a problem and highlighting the interconnection between different issues.

In Nigeria, where there is increasing action to address the rise in violent extremists and a global outcry over the abduction of the Nigerian girls by Boko Haram, one local organization, the CLEEN Foundation, is making a difference. Kemi Okenyodo, executive director of CLEEN, and her team are working closely with government agencies to increase the transparency and accountability of the security, justice and anti-corruption agencies in Nigeria. Understanding that endemic corruption has an impact on citizen security, CLEEN is working with a range of institutions, making connections between issues and bringing together different actors and tools to support better security for Nigerians.

Change Requires Building New, Sometimes Uncomfortable Alliances

The WEvolve campaign has highlighted that in order to empower women worldwide, we also need to focus on empowering men. Successful social entrepreneurs reach out to those who might not naturally come together, and bringing men into the women’s empowerment movement is one such necessary alliance. Our colleagues at Partners-Yemen have been working with thousands of women around the country to build leadership and conflict resolution skills and give them a voice in local governance and national political decisions. But it has always been important to our Yemeni colleagues that men are also brought into this effort to support the local programs.

Such “uncomfortable alliances” for those in the social sector can also include working closely with the private sector. In very factionalized environments, there can be mutual mistrust between business or political elites and civic activists, making it difficult to find common ground or a willingness to collaborate on social problems.

The director of Partners-Albania, Juliana Hoxha, has helped to bridge this divide by actively promoting effective corporate social responsibility in the country through training and enabling legislation, as well as by creating a high-level annual prize that recognizes outstanding local philanthropy. In a region still struggling to develop a strong civil society capable of contributing to the political, economic and social development in the Balkans, Juliana’s role in bringing in local businesses into the sustainability equation has been essential.

Change Requires Global/Local/Together

As we honor the work of women all over the world to make change using new, innovative strategies and tools, we also recognize that there is a clear role for international organizations to demonstrate practical solidarity with them. We promote their work on a global stage, support sharing experiences across regions and provide moral and technical support for their hard efforts.

In this spirit, Partners is now kicking off a new global initiative with the GE Foundation, the Peace Nexus Foundation and the Seattle International Foundation to explore how these entrepreneurial practices can be better applied in conflict environments and in countries with severe governance challenges. Collaborating with women like Eva Rodriguez from Transformando Conflictos Partners-El Salvador, and many others who are committed to tackling social change within an increasingly alarming security crisis, Partners will be working within and outside our network to capture how new funding models and innovative solutions can support these women as well as their male colleagues in bringing about needed change.

(Top image and GIF: Courtesy of Partners for Democratic Change)




Julia Roig is the President of Partners for Democratic Change (Partners), an international nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that represents a network of 20 independent local “Partners Centers” dedicated to conflict and change management. Partners works with corporate and government clients to provide conflict analysis, capacity building, community engagement and the facilitation of dialogue and peaceful conflict transformation.



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