Harnessing women’s entrepreneurial spirit in conflict zones

Empowering women's employability

I decided to study electrical engineering for my undergraduate degree because I had a high score when I finished school and I wanted my family to be proud of their daughter. Medicine and engineering are the most respected careers in Palestine, similar to many other developing countries. I went on to graduate with distinction in 2008; however, in a country where the unemployment rate is high, it was not easy to find a stable job.

I had the opportunity to work with different local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) where they implemented humanitarian and development interventions.

The paradigm shift in my career started when I worked with East Jerusalem-YMCA in Gaza on the Economic Empowerment Program in 2010. The program provided financial and managerial support for poor and vulnerable families – especially women-headed families – in order to start up or grow businesses. My tasks included writing business plans, and training and mentoring entrepreneurs at the start-up and during the operation of their businesses for at least 18 months.

During this work experience, I was inspired by the success stories of many women entrepreneurs who were able to secure income for their families and see how this has reflected positively on the education and well-being of their children. I also observed how their personalities improved and how men changed their attitudes towards the women’s work and mobility.

Those women only needed the right support and guidance to become active agents and engage in economic activities. 

This work experience inspired me to further my education and directed me to my current research topic, as I was motivated to be in a position to help empower women and provide employment in fragile states, by designing effective and contextualised policies and interventions.

I successfully secured a research grant (OFID Scholarship) for my masters degree in poverty and development at the University of Sussex in 2015. My dissertation explored women’s entrepreneurship in the Gaza Strip, which helped me to formulate the question and objectives of my PhD research. 

At Plymouth, I am currently a doctoral candidate where I focus on the resilience of entrepreneurs and gender in the conflict contexts of Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine.

My research methods

In my research, I explored the motivation, challenges and opportunities for men and women entrepreneurs to start and run businesses in such hostile environments, and how this might trigger social changes.

I used online interviews as the main method of data collection with men and women entrepreneurs in the three countries, conducting a total of 30 interviews via Skype/telephone to overcome the travel risks associated with conflict contexts.

I lived for most of my life in Palestine, and I was familiar with the experiences and challenges of living in a conflict zone.

This insider position helped me to conduct the interviews with sensitivity to the circumstances of the interviewees and heightened awareness of the contextual factors.

The interviewees

Bissan (24, Hebron, Palestine)

  • Bissan is an agricultural engineer.

  • She sought for independence and started her business of ornamental planting in 2012.

  • Her business is almost the only one in the West Bank to produce roses.

Rangina (41, Kandahar, Afghanistan) 

  • Rangina worked for a NGO in 2003 on a project which provided income-generating activities for women by producing handmade embroidery products.

  • She started the project as a profitable business in 2008, ‘Kandahar Treasure’, in order to ensure its sustainability and help women.

  • Her business is the first officially registered women’s business in Kandahar and she markets the products locally and internationally.

Sanaa (46, from Ramallah, Palestine)

  • Sanaa started her business of making accessories out of necessity in 2000 because of financial pressures after the martyrdom of her brother-in-law.

  • She started a home-based business out of necessity but she introduced aluminium jewellery in 2010, and she was the first one in the Middle East to work on this.

My research findings

Both men and women entrepreneurs are affected by violent conflict, but the impact of this is experienced in different ways. The changes in gender roles and the involvement of women in previously male-dominated areas were facilitated by the ongoing conflict in those countries.

My research findings revealed that gender roles during conflict are negotiated and this period can offer opportunities for women to formalise their increased participation in economic life.

The role of the women participants in this research was significant in creating jobs for other women. The sixteen women in this study have created jobs for 226 people (36 men and 190 women), while the fourteen men have 132 people working with them (120 men and 12 women).

Entrepreneurship has the potential to not only contribute to economic growth, but also to empower women and promote gender equality in patriarchal conflict contexts. However, these gains can be temporary because of war needs, and women can be more vulnerable in post-conflict periods.

Gender equality empowers both men and women. Men have a crucial role to play in promoting gender equality and peace, and if this were more widely understood, it would help in the efforts to create and continue positive opportunities for women.

While I was writing the findings of my PhD thesis and reading all of the quotes by the women that I had interviewed, I felt so proud of being a woman.

Despite all the challenges, those women believed in themselves and through their persistence, optimism, awareness and hard work they became active agents – helping their families, empowering women in their country and contributing to their economy.

The future impact of my research

The entrepreneurial journey of most of the participants, from start-up until the time of the interviews, combined many personal and institutional challenges.

Resilient entrepreneurs are the ones who overcome and thrive in the face of adverse social, economic and political conditions. They invested their resources, effort and time into the business, and developed psychological connections with it. This connection creates entrepreneurial spirit which enables them to adapt and maintain their business. 

My research has both theoretical and practical implications that can increase the number of entrepreneurial activities in such
fragile contexts.

I submitted my PhD thesis last January and will have my viva in May. The findings of my PhD will direct me to future research where I am interested in exploring entrepreneurial resilience among refugees, particularly women, coming from conflict zones and living in Europe.