Gender at the intersection of education and entrepreneurship in Bhutan and Vietnam


Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) constitute the backbone of the economies of most countries, representing about 90% of companies and more than 50% of jobs worldwide. Formal MSMEs contribute up to 40% of GDP in emerging economies, making them key to accelerating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities). For this reason, the United Nations General Assembly has designated June 27 as MSME Day to highlight the contributions of these companies.

Entrepreneurship is central to the development of a vibrant MSME sector, as it creates new businesses, which in turn create jobs, enhance competition, introduce innovation and increase productivity. In the face of the unprecedented global challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, investing in women and diverse entrepreneurs has become central towards inclusive and sustainable recovery and development. As East and South Asia remain the most dynamic regions With growing influence on the global economy, a brief overview of women’s entrepreneurial activities in these regions, particularly in Bhutan and Vietnam, will help focus attention on promoting the necessary structural changes in the economy to become more gender-friendly.

Female entrepreneurship in Bhutan and Vietnam

Bhutan and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies in East and South Asia and share many similarities in landscape, culture and people. The troika made up of Bhutan, Thailand and Vietnam has publicly pledged to engage in sustainable development and poverty eradication efforts. Against this backdrop, women-owned MSMEs in these countries are growing rapidly. However, their enterprises tend to be informal, small and concentrated in low productivity sectors, which exposes them to increased risk in times of economic crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, women entrepreneurs in these countries have suffered more than their male counterparts from the temporary suspension of activities and permanent closures.

We need to move towards a women-friendly economy and a women-friendly entrepreneurial ecosystem.

According to a recent study commissioned by the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2022) and led by 2014 Echidna Global Researcher Nima Tshering, 91% of businesses in Bhutan have been negatively affected by COVID-related lockdowns and trade restrictions -19, women – informal and home-based businesses most affected. In the same way, in Vietnam, 80% of women-owned businesses were among the most affected sectors, compared to 60% of businesses owned by men. The pandemic has intensified key barriers women already faced, such as small networks, legal challenges, limited access to technology, and reduced time for education due to higher work-family conflict. In other words, women entrepreneurs are overrepresented at the base of the economic pyramid in general and compared to MSMEs in particular.

Empowering Women Entrepreneurs to Survive and Thrive Amid the Pandemic and Beyond: Education as an Investment

In response to the current economic crisis, some governments have put in place measures to support the survival of female entrepreneurs. For example, in Bhutan, entrepreneurial innovation has been promoted as a COVID-19 recovery strategy for businesses. According to Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma, the “innovate first, regulate later” approach, which allows entrepreneurs in Bhutan to open a business in less than a minute, was implemented as a solution to break down barriers faced by female entrepreneurs. This is important and relevant support as most women entrepreneurs in Bhutan work in informal, artisanal and small businesses. In addition, new business capital investments of less than Nu 200,000 (approximately USD 26,000) will be allowed to start operations without requiring license or regulatory clearance, except those on the prohibited and controlled list. . Similarly, in Vietnam where women still know limited access to land and creditthe government gave financial aid at businesses affected by COVID-19including a 15% reduction in land rental fees and a 2% reduction in loan interest ratesas an emergency response.

These policies can provide immediate support to women entrepreneurs, but as countries move from recovery to development, particular attention must be paid to interventions that balance short-term economic goals with long-term sustainability and resilience. A growing body of research demonstrates that no tool is more effective in achieving this than education. Educated girls and women can “understand their social and legal rights, become economically independent, gain a voice in family and community affairs” (Pachaiyappan, 2014, p. 187). As they exercise their agency, greater gender equality can be achieved, economic performance enhanced and development outcomes for future generations enhanced.

Whereas access to education for today’s girls and women has greatly expanded, they are still less likely to receive an education than boys and men, which has major consequences for their personal growth and well-being. In Bhutan and Vietnam, the disproportionate representation of female entrepreneurs at the bottom of the economic pyramid may have its roots, in part, in girls’ and women’s limited access to quality education. In Vietnam, according to a UN Women Report 2020, the lack of knowledge and skills is the main obstacle faced by women entrepreneurs. Investing in the education of girls and women will therefore put them on the path to rapid development.

The Bhutan Informal Economy Diagnostic Study conducted by the Ministry of Economic Affairs (2021) shows that 90% of workers in the informal economy have not completed secondary education, with 39% of women have no education compared to 34% of men. Data from Bhutan show that quality education for girls can have downstream implications for the economy. Modern education only started in Bhutan in 1961 and in 1970, only 2 girls were enrolled in primary school for 100 boys. Half a century later, as Bhutan’s gender ranking for primary and secondary school enrollment is first out of 156 countries, according to the latest Global Gender Gap Report 2021 by the World Economic Forum, Bhutan’s gender ranking for economic participation is a dismal 130th. It should also be noted that Bhutan’s gender ranking for higher education is 117th and women make up only 18.5% of senior executives or managers in the economy. These data indicate that there may be a link between the level of education of girls and young women and their subsequent positions in the economic pyramid, although the promise of gender parity in primary and secondary schooling does not hold. is not yet reflected in the economic sector.

It is important to take a more systemic and gender-transformative view of education that not only empowers girls as individualsallowing them to develop the necessary skills and climb the ladder of the economic pyramidbut also transforms the broader context of gender equality in a country which then promotes structural change in the economy. In other words, we need to move towards a women-friendly economy and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Education for girls and women should go beyond access to school

Much of the conversation around MSMEs over the years has focused on increasing the number of female entrepreneurs. It is imperative now that we focus more on helping them grow their businesses and reach the higher levels of the pyramid, instead of getting stuck at the bottom. Improving access to education for girls and women has not been sufficient to achieve this goal. Rather, it is fundamental to focus on what we call “the intersection of genders in the streets of education and the economy” to address systemic barriers such as gender norms and stereotypes, as well as the needs specific to girls and women.


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