By Beatrice Loh
Economic, social and political developments in Asia over the last decades have brought with them changes in the status of women. It is much easier to be an Asian woman now with societal improvements that favor equality and individual rights. However, some areas are reacting to such change more slowly compared to others. In politics, women’s suffrage exists in most of Asia but the literacy rate of women still lags behind that of men. Cultural traditions also continue to have a strong influence on the status of women in the region, especially in the familial sphere.
Social startups focused on females have been increasing over the years, targeting the education sector, beauty industry and even the business world, amongst others. Here are 5 startups in various parts of Asia benefitting women:
- Educate Girls
Educate Girls was established in 2007 to tackle the root causes of gender inequality in India’s education system. It has helped to ensure over 90 percent enrollment and higher attendance as well as improved school infrastructure, quality of education and learning outcomes for all girls. The organisation believes that if girls in the most backward gender gap districts are educated now, they will have the potential to enter the formal economy, gain employment and lift their families out of poverty. The social enterprise targeted Rajasthan, a region in northwest India, but has since expanded to reach over 11, 000 schools all over the country.
Rajasthan was originally selected because society there is traditionally patriarchal with deeply ingrained social practices, traditions and customs. Often, a girl is deemed less worthy than a boy and is kept home to do household chores. Child marriage is also the norm, with 40% of girls leaving school before grade five and 68 percent of girls being married before the legal age, according to the World Bank.
“If girls are given the chance to study, then they have the power to change the world,” said Manisha Rawal, one of the beneficiaries of Educate Girls, when interviewed by the World Bank.
The model of Educate Girls gets to the root of the problem: the lack of ownership from the community. Their program mobilizes communities to take a stand against gender disparity, working directly with governments, schools, parents, village leaders and community volunteers to ensure access to quality education. Their plan of action includes instituting community-based enrollment plans, creating school management committees and raising awareness of the benefits of educating a girl.
Founded by Mouna Aouri Langendorf, a Tunisian-born civil engineer and entrepreneur, Woomentum is a Singapore-based community-cum-crowdfunding platform for women who are founders and entrepreneurs. It aims to foster communication, resource sharing, mentoring and early-stage funding amongst startups.
Research shows that less than 5 percent of venture capital funding goes to women-founded businesses. Woomentum aims to raise those figures by boosting female entrepreneurship through a support network and community.
Woomentum started as an online community in which members could post questions and start a discussion but has expanded to include more specialized consultation services and advice on crowdfunding campaigns. The crowdfunding feature is located on a separate site, woomentum.fund, and is different from other sites because it provides a “follow” and “influence” option, apart from the conventional “fund” button. Visitors to the web can choose to receive updates about the project through the “follow” feature, and can even give feedback through the “influence” feature, without having to commit funds to the project.
Whilst feminine hygiene has a developed industry in the West, in much of South Asia it is still a taboo subject and has prevented many women in the region from pursuing further education or a proper job. According to a 2012 WaterAid survey, 10 percent of girls in India thought menstruation was a disease. UNICEF found that 66 percent of girls in South Asia did not know anything about menstruation before their first period. In certain cultures, such as parts of Nepal and Bangladesh, menstruating women are isolated, hindering their access to education and limiting opportunities for work.
“Women were dropping out because of lack of access [to hygiene products],” said Ameet Mehta, who was working for a non-profit organisation giving out performance scholarships, in an interview with fastcoexist.com.
Together with Dhirendra Singh, Mehta cofounded Azadi, an impact venture with a mission to make menstruation a non-issue in India. Azadi developed the AzadiPad, an eco-ultra thin sanitary napkin retailing at US$0.33 for a pack of 8, thus increasing access to affordable sanitary products. It is made available through community-based organizations. Since developing the AzadiPad, Azadi has also expanded to address the lack of information about feminine hygiene and puberty. Azadi’s Toll-Free Menstrual Helpline and Menstrual Friendly Schools Initiative are two such initiatives. Through the Menstrual Helpline, an adolescent girl can quickly and anonymously speak with a trained counselor about menstruation, menstrual hygiene and menstrual management. The Menstrual Friendly Schools program aims to map awareness and infrastructure in government schools, in order to empower local bodies and government to take action to fill critical gaps.
To fulfill its mission, Azadi has devised a holistic solution that along with increasing awareness about menstrual hygiene and access to menstrual management products, works to embolden all members of society to build a community that is aware, alert and equipped to mitigate the financial, functional and social challenges females in Indian society face because of their periods.
Rags2Riches is a for-profit social enterprise based in Manila, Philippines. Since 2007, R2R has been helping women in poor communities in the Philippines make a living from weaving eco-ethical fashion and home accessories. Accessories are created out of upcycled scrap cloth, organic materials and indigenous fabrics online and in retail stores.
Before R2R, middlemen in the industry controlled both the supply of fabric and the women’s formal access to the market, thus exploiting these female handicraft artisans by paying them very little for their work. R2R provides these women with access to the market and the formal economy, as well as with additional skills-based, financial and health training in order for them to utilize their maximum financial and personal potential.
In the years since its inception, R2R has trained over 900 artisans across communities in Metro Manila and continues to expand its social impact and eco-ethical footprint in the country. In 2015, Forbes recognized founder of R2R, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, in its prestigious annual list of 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs. She was described as an individual who belonged to “an elite group of people who are directing their talent and conviction to better the world.”
Buying and reselling prepaid credits for mobile phones is common practice in Indonesia. Singaporean Adrianna Tan founded Wobe to crack the inefficiencies of this system by making it easy for agents to access pulsa directly from the source at a good price and by making the entire transaction transparent and trackable through an app. Traditionally, these credits are often sold and resold from one hand to the next, increasing the costs with each step. Wobe cuts out the middlemen to make sure resellers get the best possible price and has a low entry barrier by requiring a minimum investment of only US$5.
Wobe specifically targets women but the app is not exclusive to women, as the business model solves the problem of low-income groups that do not have access to capital to establish small businesses. Apart from mobile credits, Wobe is planning to expand its services to include prepaid electricity and water vouchers as well as electronic train tickets. Beyond earning money through selling digital goods through the app, Wobe users can also get extra perks by filling in surveys from Wobe partners. The app also offers educational content such as digital courses on entrepreneurship.
Wobe prides itself on being a provider of mobile business and finance tools for Southeast Asian women. It currently focuses on Indonesia but has plans to expand its business to other Southeast Asian countries.
The startup boom has led to an explosion of new social startups on the scene addressing major issues and helping the underprivileged. Although women are constitute more or less half of the world’s population, females are often marginalised and face high barriers of entry into the workforce and academic institutions. These 5 startups are leading the way in raising the living standards of women all over Asia. Hopefully, more will follow suit.