What Access Means to Women

Apr 30, 2012

What Access Means to Women

At International Women’s Forum, women from around the world talk about why Access matters in creating a better world for women and girls.

For almost a decade, FedEx has studied the impact of Access — the force that makes it easier for people and businesses to connect with each other anywhere in the world. We’ve learned that as Access gains a foothold in any community, a world of opportunities — new jobs and economic growth, commerce and prosperity — can blossom. We call it the “Access effect.”

Access allows individuals to stretch beyond their borders, which in turn benefits families and communities. At the International Women’s Forum (IWF) world leadership conference (of which FedEx is a sponsor) held in Washington in October, we gathered a group of remarkable women to talk about how Access shapes their worlds and creates a future where opportunities abound for women and men alike.

Asma Chaabi, the first woman to become the democratically elected mayor of a Moroccan city, knows the challenges of leading as a woman and making traction in a region rooted in tradition. She was elected in 2003 and served for six years as the mayor of Essaouira, the important port on the western coast of Morocco. A member of the IWF’s board of directors, she is also vice president of Groupe Chaabi, a holding company with interests in construction, real estate, tourism, and modern goods.

“As the first woman elected mayor, I gave access to many other women,” she says in a steady voice. “I had a very hard term as a mayor. They tried everything to get me out. Many things could have destroyed me, but I’m stronger.”

Her unshakable determination is a model for the women who will follow her. “What helped me were the people who were really supportive,” she explains, “but also my faith and my beliefs — believing that women, especially in our Arab region, we have to take our place. We are all equal.”

Women are striving for equal positions from corporate boardrooms to remote farms in the developing world, and Access plays a key part in the process.

Claire Schafnit-Chatterjee, Senior Analyst at Deutsche Bank Research Group based in Frankfurt, Germany, researches trends in gender equity and leadership around the world. “One of the challenges women face is that they are too often the minority in the business world, and the minority out of power,” she says. “So access to knowledge is one of the main things they need.”

Schafnit-Chatterjee studied agriculture development in Africa and Asia and noted that women farmers have an integral role to play in economic development. When given access to technology and information — through the use of mobile phones — farmers are better able to price their goods and make geologic improvements, such as choosing the right fertilizers.

“It is important to keep in mind that gender equity does not mean sameness, rather equal access to opportunities,” she notes.

Charlotte Oades, Global Director of Women’s Economic Empowerment for The Coca-Cola Company, admits, “We clearly have a ways to go for gender equality,” but she envisions a world where opening new doors for women is seen as “good for business.” She highlights Coca-Cola’s “5 by 20” initiative to empower 5 million women entrepreneurs around the world by 2020, from banana farmers in Brazil to pushcart vendors in India.

“It doesn’t make sense to drive growth without empowering women,” she says, pointing out that women reinvest 90 percent of their income back into their families and communities.

“This ripple effect can recharge the entire world,” she notes.

Creating Access for other individuals in need, and thereby transforming communities, is a powerful example of the ripple effect.

When Adi Altschuler was 16, she befriended a 3-year-old boy named Kfir, who suffered from cerebral palsy and had no social outlets in his neighborhood in Israel. Moved by his plight to fit in with other kids, she started a non-profit, Krembo Wings, to give a voice to children and youth with special needs. Today, this volunteer-run organization serves 1,300 youth with disabilities across Israel.

“For me, it was the lack of justice which stirred me into taking action. Not pity,” she explains. “A kind of basic understanding that there was no real difference between me and Kfir. I wanted to remove the judgments and preconceptions put on us by society.”

When she started her organization, she ran into naysayers who told her, “You can’t do it. Why would you want to?” But she persevered, driven by a vision to create an inclusive community for all children. “I see our leaders being so pessimistic,” she says. “It’s easier to see the empty cup. The barriers for me are the society, lack of vision and a lack of positivity. I see the revolution as starting from this small piece of hope.”

Finding innovative solutions to break down the walls to Access is a challenge that this group of women welcomes.

Impeccably garbed in a crisp navy suit with gold accents, Anna Fendi Venturini, matriarch of the Fendi fashion empire, explains through an Italian translator how she started working with her four sisters in the family business at an early age and has now passed on the reins at Fendi to her daughters.

“The only hope that our world can have is to give much more possibilities to women and have many more women leaders taking positions of power,” she says. "So absolutely, I hope that in the future women can attain better possibilities. And I’m not a feminist. I think we need men as well. I don’t want my words to be misunderstood, but we need to give women more opportunities.

“In this very difficult moment, this crisis globally of course, creativity can be the solution,” she adds. “Because only with new ideas, with a lot of effort, with of course a cooperation between people, we can resolve and we can succeed.”

Sandra Hiari, an architect and urban planner in Amman, Jordan, has seen some of the barriers to Access crumble in the Arab world. “The issue of Access at this time, especially in the Middle East, is very crucial,” she says. “Since it’s been by limited access that we have been confined. And by opening ways to gain access through new mechanisms like through technology, we get a form of enablement. We can enable new forms of citizenry happening.”

As an urban planner for public projects, she takes into consideration how to design spaces that allow citizens to engage easily with each other. “There are two types of Access. First is physical Access and whether you can easily navigate through a terrain or not,” she says. “And then there’s an overarching reality related to governance and the power nexus that goes into play in any given city or country. As a layperson or normal citizen, how can you get your voice out there and engage in conversation?”

“Before January 25th (when protests began in Cairo’s Tahrir Square), we didn’t have that much freedom to be vocal about day-to-day issues,” she adds. “The power nexus and its relation to citizens is really an important way in determining how Access can happen.”

Natalie Brown, who has worked as a diplomat in Jordan, Kuwait and Ethiopia and is now Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia, agrees that technology and innovation can open the doors to Access.

“Technology has done an amazing job of connecting people,” she says. “Tunisia has one of the highest percentages of Facebook use globally. Young people used that to organize protests that resulted in the removal of their former leader. These social networks — whether it’s Facebook or LinkedIn — are creating Access. New opportunities blossom from there, and it’s the wave of the future.”

Brown has also witnessed the difference that opportunities for women can make in changing traditions. When she worked in Jordan, she learned of a program that created employment in rural areas by creating industrial zones that allowed for duty-free exports to the United States.

“There are huge cultural barriers to letting daughters go and work in these factories,” she says. “But I met one family where the factory owners spoke to the parents and community and convinced them it was a safe environment where women could work.” The four sisters started working there and their salary helped their family move to a new home and put their brother through university.

“I would have loved it if one of the sisters had gone to university as well,” she says. “But it’s a start. This is a family that never would have had access to higher education. So you get to see that by employing women, the change that it makes.”

Marilyn Blanco-Reyes, Vice President of Legal and Regulatory Affairs for FedEx and an IWF board member, echoes the idea that education plays a crucial role in leveling the playing field.

“Education is the most critical part of Access,” she says. “It’s not just access to an education that you just learn rote things or is full of political content. It’s access to education that teaches people how to think for themselves — and that’s a whole different thing.”

That’s because people can never be stripped of their knowledge. Researchers have found that education is essential to breaking the cycle of poverty. When women have greater access to education, they make better health choices for themselves and their families.

Access is the transformative thread that has the power to change lives — be it through education, commerce, technology or innovation. And as the Access effect reaches farther, the future looks brighter for all women around the globe.