The advancement of gender equality and women’s rights is currently at the forefront of international discourse. Just last month, delegations from across the world gathered at the United Nations in New York City to participate in a “Commission on the Status of Women.” This group examined the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action as it celebrated its 20th anniversary. The Beijing Declaration, adopted by 189 countries, is an initiative to promote the empowerment of women worldwide. However, despite collaborations like the Beijing Declaration, various human rights treaties, and endless efforts by women’s rights advocates, in 2015, there is still no country in the world that enjoys complete equality for women.
While issues of gender equality cut across many spheres of life, they are particularly visible in the workplace, especially in developing countries. According to the International Labor Organization, gender discrimination is the most prevalent form of inequality in the workplace worldwide. Because of this sweeping problem, I decided to utilize our clinical study in Tanzania to explore the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs on the ground and to examine these challenges in the context of human rights law and international trade. My goal was to identify solutions for empowering women entrepreneurs in Tanzania by combining knowledge of the laws and feedback from women regarding the obstacles they face.
After spending over a week in Tanzania and having over a dozen meetings with individuals and organizations, the commonalities in the challenges voiced to us fell into three categories: lack of capacity, no enforcement of rights, and cultural norms that perpetuate gender inequality. It quickly became clear that the domestic laws and human rights treaties that purported to empower women were not effective in practice. Therefore, I found that operating outside of the prescribed legal protections and utilizing innovative grassroots solutions was the most successful method available. Such solutions include creating women-women networks, implementing programs that expose women to new markets, and offering training to help women entrepreneurs build the skills necessary for a prosperous business.
We were fortunate to witness a few of these solutions in action while in Tanzania. For example, we saw the power of women-women networks when we met with Vicoba, a microfinance organization that seeks to ensure that entrepreneurs have access to capital. The group has over 400,000 members, 88% of which are women. Vicoba represents a great example of women helping each other when the systems in place fail to help them.
One of the biggest lessons I received from this clinical experience is that lawyers cannot always rely on the law to create change. An important part of our legal education at Harvard Law School is being able to identify gaps where the law is failing and finding ways to help others through collaboration and innovation.