When a woman succeeds, there are no losers: A conversation with Solange Hai

by 26th Mar 2021
Sharmini Thiyakaran, business owner in Sri Lanka Sharmini Thiyakaran, business owner in Sri Lanka

Time and again it becomes clear that when women are economically empowered, the whole community benefits. That’s why supporting women to start a business is a core focus of CARE. Via, for example, training and access to finance, such as through Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA), women worldwide are finding a way out of poverty.

CARE's Solange Hai explains how CARE is supporting women entrepreneurs (interview and article by Milouska Meulens, translated from Dutch by Anna de Bruijn).

Solange Hai has a dual role at CARE: she manages the Women in Enterprise project, supporting women in seven countries to set up enterprises. This approach works: entrepreneurship has shown to provide a way out of poverty. Besides, she is the Head of Women and Markets within the Women’s Economic Justice team. Solange meets inspiring women from all over the world who succeed as entrepreneurs, so she can confirm that what she does at CARE matters.

When you listen to her speak, you can’t help but get involved. The American is serious and cheerful at the same time, decisive and thoughtful, passionate and persistent. She learns a lot from the women who participate in the projects that she manages. “Women are doing fantastic things. Much of the time behind the scenes; they often don’t get the recognition they deserve. They are role models. When one woman stands up for herself, more will follow. They look at one another and think: if she can do it, so can I. That’s why at CARE we motivate women to be role models.”

“The structures and systems that perpetuate discrimination and inequality must change. You simply cannot fight for equal rights within a system that subordinates women.”

She has examples abound. “In Jordan, Fadwa started a taxi service exclusively for women. She saw that the market wasn’t meeting that demand. Her brothers thought it wasn’t fitting for a woman. Against their wishes and social norms, she founded her business with passion and perseverance.”

Different focus, same goal

Due to her dual role at CARE, Solange has a good overview of the transition the organisation is going through, from empowerment to justice. “The structures and systems that perpetuate discrimination and inequality must change. You simply cannot fight for equal rights within a system that subordinates women. Power holders and policymakers, communities and households; people at all levels need to take responsibility. According to Solange, economic equity and justice is not a matter of age or ‘the men against the women’. “These are issues that concern and affect us all.”

She is reminded of Narcisa from Peru. “A ceramicist in a women’s cooperation, she creates and sells beautiful ceramic objects. She participated in a financial training by CARE and learned how to budget and save, among other things.

Her husband and children also started using the tablet that was rotated within her course group, so they too learned how to save and budget. The family has become a close-knit team that makes financial decisions together,” Solange says proudly. “Narcisa recently told us that she had saved enough money to get through the start of the COVID pandemic, thanks to our training.”

The price of the pandemic

Families’ financial literacy comes in handy especially during the COVID crisis, says Solange. “Families have to adapt to these turbulent and emotional times of lockdown and working from home. They have to redefine the division of labour. It’s no longer taken for granted that the lion’s share of unpaid care work lies with women. The structural flaws of our society have been exposed. Out of necessity, men now also take on care for children and the household.”

"CARE wants to get women in decision-making spaces. When women are heard, their needs are better met." 

The COVID crisis causes dire situations all over the world – it’s no different in the most vulnerable countries that Solange visits for CARE. In Sri Lanka, for example, income of the women she works with fell by 90%. And in Guatemala, 96% of families cannot provide for their basic food needs since the pandemic started. According to the United Nation’s initial estimates, 10% of women globally will fall back into poverty in 2021 because of corona. “Within our projects we see a huge difference in incomes before and after corona too. We work in the most vulnerable areas, where the population sometimes lives just above the poverty line, but often below. Much of what had been built before corona has quickly disappeared again in these circumstances.”

Everybody wins

The effects of the pandemic are thus mainly being carried by those already struggling. And yet Solange sees women entrepreneurs who are not only surviving, but even grow despite the COVID crisis. When we support women, there are no losers, she says. “CARE wants to get women in decision-making spaces. When women are heard, their needs are better met. And even the poverty gap shrinks. Everyone benefits when you invest in women.”

It strikes Solange that when women receive support, they multiply it by investing in their own communities. Take Sharmini in Sri Lanka, for example. “She runs a business that processes coir into bio fertiliser, mattress filling and brushes. Her most important customers were luxury hotels, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. Due to corona, trade collapsed. But she kept her business afloat, which will soon provide employment for fifty women, some with a disability. Sharmini, Fadwa, Narcisa and all those other women lacked opportunities and resources, but they managed to build something. That inspires me and others at CARE enormously.”

This article was first published in the CARE Nederland Annex of Dutch newspaper Trouw, 8 March 2021, produced by Mona van den Berg Producties. Mona is a photographer, filmmaker and publisher; she tells stories that are not highlighted enough in mainstream media, from a compassionate angle. Written by Milouska Meulens. Milouska writes and is a columnist, presenter and television host.

Translation: Anna de Bruijn

Anna de Bruijn

In my role as Knowledge Management Assistant I support the global technical teams at CARE International UK – including Women’s Economic Justice and Inclusive Governance – with knowledge management and learning, making sure we use our data and learning to improve impact for the people we serve. I’m especially interested in women’s leadership and post-conflict reconstruction as well as our work in fragile settings.

Prior to joining CARE at the start of 2020, I worked in a Learning & Communications role for another international NGO that focuses on access to food and nutrition, and I completed my MA in Conflict, Security & Development at King’s College London.

One good thing I’ve read:

In university I did research on extremism. One of the most captivating books I have read is the unbelievable story of Laura H.: The Caliphate Girl from Zoetermeer (it should get translated into English soon!) When I need a more uplifting message, I get inspired by Rutger Bregman: Humankind: A Hopeful History.

Email: Debruijn@careinternational.org

Twitter: @anna_dbrown