Technology and entrepreneurship are helping to empower women in some of the world’s most patriarchal societies, such as Yemen.
The pitches held during various challenges, hackathons, acceleration programmes and start-up competitions are always a great opportunity to learn about what solutions entrepreneurs and innovators are currently working on, and, more importantly, what obstacles they face.
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A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to join United Nations Women’s Entrepreneurship Accelerator (WEA), led by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and several other organisations, for their Digital Innovation Challenge. Its goal was to develop a more inclusive and diverse world while creating an enabling digital innovation ecosystem for women entrepreneurs worldwide.
Female entrepreneurship has been on Emerging Europe’s agenda since we were founded a decade ago. Now, with the launch of the She’s Next digital community platform for women running their own businesses in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in partnership with VISA, it has become particularly important.
“The ITU Digital Innovation Challenges bring together outstanding changemakers with digital innovations solving societal issues to empower them with skills to accelerate the growth and impact of their initiative,” Victoria Massó, Digital Innovation Challenges lead expert at the ITU, tells me.
“They become part of the Digital Innovation Ecosystem Network and I believe that is where the magic happens. My favourite success stories are those of genuine connections and collaborations that happen naturally in the network between changemakers and other stakeholders, helping each other navigate uncertainty and build better futures for all,” she adds.
Solving social challenges
This year’s innovation challenge included over 250 projects led by women from more than 50 countries across the globe. A global jury, which I was privileged to be part of, eventually chose ten final winners in mid-March in New York City on the margins of the Commission on the Status of Women.
“The ten winners selected through the process guided by ITU are the women leaders that show the power women have to transform societies for the better, and why we need to keep engaging in initiatives like the Challenges to support their growth and impact,” says Merâl Güzel, partnerships manager at Women’s Entrepreneurship Accelerator.
“The women leading the best initiatives are demonstrated ecosystem champions, offering scalable and innovative digital solutions that tackle different Sustainable Development Goals such as Good Health and Well-being (SDG 3), Gender Equality (SDG 5), Decent work and Economic growth (SDG 8) and Climate Action (SDG 12) among others,” says Loly Gaitan, programme manager at the International Telecommunication Union.
Among the ten winners, there was a Kenyan social enterprise with a proven market-based model for transforming quality and sustainability of informal childcare, an educational mobile application that assists children in speech and language development and a tech start-up in the gig economy that empowers low-income women from the slums working as casual cleaners.
There were also projects aiming at making coding and programming accessible to Filipino students at a young age, and software that helps business support organisations improve the profitability of female entrepreneurs through an engaging portal for the business and the power of artificial intelligence, to name just a few.
Now, the winning women-led initiatives working to achieve sustainable development goals (SGDs) will access capacity-building training, mentorship support and a network of changemakers to accelerate the growth of their initiatives as well as be published as a best practice in an official report. In a similar way, WEA wants to empower five million women by 2030.
Saving women’s lives
One participating project, the Reema Digital Safety Platform — sadly, not one of the winners but one of the 22 finalists — was submitted by the Raymah Foundation for Development and Humanitarian Response (RFDH) from Yemen, one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2021, Yemen was ranked last but one (only ahead of Afghanistan). The latest edition didn’t include the country at all.
A civil war in Yemen began in 2014 and it is women who are paying the highest price. Now, almost a decade later, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) says that 7.1 million Yemeni women require urgent access to gender-based violence services, three-quarters of the 4.5 million displaced people in Yemen are women and children, most of whom have been displaced multiple times. UNPFA estimates that 1.5 million pregnant and breastfeeding women are acutely malnourished, 5.5 million women and girls of childbearing age need reproductive health services and that one woman dies in childbirth every two hours in Yemen from causes that are usually preventable.
Oftentimes, these women cannot receive any support as they do not have identity cards. Women are prohibited to be seen with mobile phones and cosmetics. Women are subject to cybercrime — blackmailers threaten them to disclose their private photos or information unless they pay up or engage in sexual acts.
At the beginning of 2023, activist Sarah Alwan attempted suicide after being blackmailed and was admitted to an intensive care unit at a hospital in Taiz, in southern Yemen. She decided to take her own life after she had tried to report the extortion for six months
“RFDH was founded to save the lives of many women because of the poor economic and political conditions in the country,” Rawan Al-Amiri, the organisation’s executive director, who could not take part in the pitching session due to a car accident, tells me.
“There are no opportunities for them to work, especially in the villages. It is forbidden for a woman to work outside,” she adds.
“We want to make her work from within her home to earn a living by training her and then empowering her economically, so that she is self-sufficient and feels self-confident, and when she feels that she is self-powered, she will be independent and liberated from the rule of patriarchal society and work outside the home so that she can deal with the world comfortably digital,” adds Fatima As-Salami, a woman displaced due to the war and now a protection officer at RFDH.
Hope in technology
Fatima shares the pain and suffering with a large number of women who are in dire need of assistance. She hopes to obtain funds that help give women opportunities to access and benefit from technology and make them equal to men in a society that lives under the control of men.
She ventured and challenged the customs and traditions of society that underestimate a woman’s independence due to her weakness, as she changed the view of her society when she changed her thought away from the domination of patriarchal rule through her work at the Raymah Foundation for Development and Humanitarian Response, which gained her freedom, independence and self-confidence.
“The technology-facilitated gender-based violence that women and girls are exposed to in Yemen is the most important motive for launching the Reema digital safety platform,” says Nashwan Al-Shawsh, founder of RFDH.
Rawan Al-Amiri says her goal is to transform risks into opportunities for professional gain.
“Because of the restrictions imposed by some societies on women and girls, which go as far as banning the use of mobile phones or accessing the internet, which is the only outlet for the majority of women and girls in Yemen, as they are not allowed to leave their homes. It is important to bring about an intellectual change, spread digital awareness, and make room for women and girls towards technology,” she says
She also believes that digital professional opportunities do not require capital, but rather good education to form successful projects. Now it is her and her team’s goal to raise funding to continue their programmes and educate as many women as possible and make that change.
I am truly honoured that I had the chance to listen to their pitch at Women’s Entrepreneurship Accelerator. They already have my support — we managed to find a way of raising funds. If you would like to contribute to empowering Yemeni women, click here to make a donation.
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