Women Economic Empowerment in Albania
In my site, a small town in central Albania, most middle-aged women do not work outside their households
A combination of poor economic conditions and conservative social expectations keep them at home. But they do have skills. Some used to be teachers, or nurses, or shopkeepers. Others are skilled at knitting, or are amazing cooks. Many of them would jump at an opportunity to put these skills to use in a way that would help them improve their situations.
I was talking with my counterpart, Arlis Alikaj, who described his mother’s daily challenges managing the household, and also the general lack of stimulating things to do in her daily life. He realized that she is not alone in this situation - many women in her age group are in a similar spot, either not working outside the home or scraping by with the small businesses they run. He wanted to find a way for her and other women like her to experience greater participation in society and in the economy. Additionally, they would all benefit from extra income. If they had a way to earn extra money in their spare time, it would improve their lives and the lives of their families. But to do that, they would need to be given certain skills.
So we started to put a plan together. We proposed to hold a 12-week course on entrepreneurship for a group of women from the community. Arlis would adapt an entrepreneurship curriculum, written in Albanian, that he had acquired at a training from an international NGO. We would bring together 20 to 25 women from different areas of town, from local villages, and from the Roma and Egyptian minority communities. We would teach them to track finances, to promote themselves and their products, and to position themselves for success. The goal was that by the conclusion of the project, each would have produced a business plan, and be ready and equipped to move forward with their ideas.
We applied for and were awarded a small grant from US-based NGO World Connect. We invited the group of women on an overnight retreat to the lakeside town of Pogradec to launch the project. But of the 15 we invited, only 8 were able to attend. Some of them were outright prohibited from spending a night out of town by their husbands. Others declined the opportunity due to the pressure they felt to stay at home and take care of their families. Here is where we really began to understand what we were up against, and just how big a change we were trying to make.
Each week we would bring them together for a coffee and a conversation. Arlis and I facilitated discussions on business concepts like bookkeeping and market research. But we also strove to change their mentalities and open their minds to different ways to succeed. We brought in other successful women with ties from the community – a hairdresser one week, a baker the next – to talk to them as peers, to share experiences and answer questions regarding their own paths to success.
Though Arlis and I put so much effort into planning and leading these discussions, the most impactful conversations were the ones the women had with each other. In one example, a woman who runs a cake bakery was asking whether she would be willing to hire an older woman (like the ones sitting at the table with her) if the opportunity arose. She replied that she certainly would not! And the other women took her to task for it. We sat back and watched, as after just a few weeks they were confronting the prejudices that hold them all back.
After 12 weeks, the sessions finished and the project has concluded, but the participants have been putting what they learned to use.
Floreta, who runs a cake bakery, hired an elderly woman from the community after being convinced that older workers can be valuable contributors.
Vita, who runs a butcher, opened a second location to sell her products in a local village.
Donika, who manages a copy shop, re-evaluated the way she keeps inventory, and devised a plan to increase stock of the products she sells most while reducing stock of those products that do not sell.
Xhemile, who runs a cafe, reached out to the local office of the Red Cross and signed a contract to provide them with coffee.
Lushka, who makes small handcrafts, came to an agreement with other women from the group to sell her products in their shops.
Tangible results aside, the most meaningful change may be in the participants’ mentalities. Despite the conservative local culture, the women are now more optimistic and look for ways to improve their lives and their economic situations. Our group of participants was a diverse group of women from across the community, and the interactions they have had with each other have opened their minds regarding people from different backgrounds as well. They have learned to work together and rely on each other, forming a network that will provide support to each other long into the future.