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As NY Fashion Week arrives, women fashion entrepreneurs battle for equality, respect

Portrait of a smiling woman wearing a purple shirt, surrounded by spools of yarn and thread

Violeta Pacheco Mejía in her home office space, June 2023. She is part of Mastercard's Strive program under CARE's Women Economic Justice umbrella. Photo: Carey Wagner/CARE

Violeta Pacheco Mejía in her home office space, June 2023. She is part of Mastercard's Strive program under CARE's Women Economic Justice umbrella. Photo: Carey Wagner/CARE

Bright lights shine. Models pout, preen, strut, and pose. A celebrity-studded audience immediately passes judgment. Welcome to New York Fashion Week.

Thousands of miles away from New York Fashion Week, where global celebrities wear billion-dollar brands, in Ghana’s Western North Region, a little girl named Gladys sat entranced.

“I used to watch fashion shows on television,” she recalls. “That gave me the interest to venture into this business.”

Wearing a colorful pantsuit she both designed and made, today Gladys Adanse Bonna cuts a striking figure. The young woman boasts a thriving clothing business, catering to both men and women in her town of Sefwi-Debiso, not far from the Cote d’Ivoire border.

Photo: José Goulão/Wikimedia Commons
Gladys Adanse Bonna proudly wears an outfit of her own creation. Photo: Dorissa White/CARE

Gladys is also the secretary of her local savings group using a smartphone to track transactions which she learned about through CARE digital training. She credits the VSLA for helping her expand her business, and for giving other women in her community the ability to become financially independent.

When she saves up more capital, Gladys says, she hopes to invest in machinery to grow her business even more.

Three women sitting at a table outdoors.
Gladys (center) uses her smartphone to track transactions during a VSLA meeting in Sefwi-Debiso, Ghana. Photo: Praise Perry/CARE

An unequal world

As Fashion Week kicks off this week in Manhattan, grabbing headlines and racking up celeb sightings, the reality is that the garment business is one of the leading employers of women around the world. Yet it is not one where women enjoy the same economic rights as men.

Some, like Gladys, have been able to build their own businesses. Many others work in textile factories – in fact, 75 percent of garment workers around the world are women.

In Lima, Peru, designer and entrepreneur Violeta Pacheco Mejía is a bit further along than Gladys, having expanded Tejidos Peruanos, her eco-friendly alpaca and cotton clothing company. Today she operates a thriving factory that employs 14 women and exports products to more than six countries.

Violeta Mejia surrounded by her employees in an indoor workshop space.
Violeta Pacheco Mejía at her factory space with her employees in Chorrillos, Lima, Peru. June 2023. Photo: Carey Wagner/CARE

Despite early success, she had to lean on her husband for loans to expand the business as she was denied formal loans in her own name.

Along the way, Violeta got involved with CARE’s Ignite program and is now in the Strive Women program, both supported by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. This program provided training in business and finance, while providing marketing opportunities and paving the way for the next step.

Four months ago, after 18 years in a growing business, she finally got a loan in her own name to expand.

“Today it is me, Violeta Pacheco, who can access a loan at the bank,” she says proudly.

According to the UN, micro, small, and medium enterprises account for 90 percent of businesses, 60 to 70 percent of employment, and 50 percent of Gross Domestic Product worldwide.

Yet, the total micro, small, or medium enterprise finance gap for women is estimated to be valued at $1.7 trillion, according to World Economic Forum research. Yet women entrepreneurs own 22 percent of micro-enterprises and 32 percent of small and medium enterprises.

Clearly, initiatives like savings groups and the Strive Women program are important, but must be expanded to reach the 2.4 billion women worldwide who lack the same economic rights as men.

Success vs. old-fashioned attitudes

Hildred Calle Barrientos in Marangani, Peru is not just a small-business owner, but the third generation in her enterprise. Hildred, 32, has now taken over Margaritas de Maranganí, her mother and grandmother’s textile business, which uses ancient methods of textile weaving with alpaca to make designs representative of their region, in the Andes mountains.

Portrait of older woman and younger woman, younger woman leaning against the older one and embracing her arm.
Hildred Calle Barrientos (right) works with her mother Ignacia Doris Barrientos Yucra in Marangani, Peru. Photo: Carey Wagner/CARE

“I went to a bank and asked if they could give me a loan, and they told me ‘No, you have to start from scratch; if you had a history, you could access something like that,’” she says. “I went to about 10 banks that are here in Canchis and only one said yes to me — only one said yes and trusted me.”

One barrier to financial access is gender stereotypes, she notes. “[They say] that because you are a woman you have children; you have to take care of your husband; you have to clean the house, and you have to cook for the family. So, in what time are you going to work? In what time are you going to pay me back? In what time will you pay?”

Portrait of young woman, serious expression, surrounded by hung-up clothing
Hildred in her shop. Photo: Carey Wagner/CARE

Like Violeta, Hildred was also part of the Ignite program, which has provided her with training and technical expertise in marketing and digital technology. In addition, one of the main purposes of Ignite and Strive Women is to open up access to loans for women entrepreneurs by co-designing loans with financial institutions. Hildred did not go this route, but the programs are building the opportunity for others to do so.

“Now we cover a good national market,” she says. “We use social networks. I think that is something the pandemic has helped us with. Whether we like it or not, we have had to use…  social networks to be able to [sell online].”

Hildred appreciates the training, but she wants to do more, and eventually enter graduate school.

“I would like to do a master’s degree that helps me better strengthen this business and also be able to share something with others,” she says. “I would like to specialize in foreign trade and sustainable fashion.”

An inclusive dream

As these fashion businesses have grown, the women behind them have taken seriously the opportunities they have to address the gender gap. When Violeta moved her business out of her home and into a factory, she chose the neighborhood of Villa El Salvador in Lima, a neighborhood affected by poverty, so she could offer job opportunities to women there.

Violeta also offers flexible work arrangements so parents can leave the factory to pick up their children from school or childcare arrangements.



Indoor portrait of smiling woman, looking directly at camera.
Violeta Pacheco Mejía. Photo: Carey Wagner/ CARE

“We have gone through many difficulties, but we have been able to move forward despite them,” she says. “We have realized at this point that if we want to keep moving forward, we just have to keep preparing and training – not just me, but the whole team. This is a dream that we dream together. And if we don’t all prepare, then the dream ends.”

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