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20.09.2008

Women creating work, local backbone

The grassroots support that the Foundation to Support Women’s Work provides to more than 10,000 women and children has spawned partnerships with local businesses as well as the government and private sector. International bank HSBC Turkey teamed up with them last month to allocate $5 million in loans to young Turkish female entrepreneurs

By KRISTEN STEVENS


Retired postal manager Semra Üstündağ, 52, makes and sells candles from a small stand but does big business with bars, discos and hamams in central Istanbul. She is one of the most successful clients working with Maya, Turkey's first microfinance program that is part of the Foundation for the Support of Women's Work (FSWW).

At the heart of the organization's approach are women-run community spaces providing assistance with birth, childcare, craft and marketing training, as well as micro-credit and small business start-up. FSWW Executive Director Şengül Akçar said these women are meeting their own needs while solving collective problems. “In the process, they are learning how to negotiate with municipalities to open up both physical and political space for themselves,” she said.

Üstündağ has received several loans of $500, all of which she repaid with 15 percent interest on time. “I would have little to hold on to without their help,” Üstündağ told the Turkish Daily News through tears. “They have been like a family to me.”

Maya has been lauded not only as a microfinance pioneer but also for being one of the first organizations in the country to grant individual credits to poor women. Building on FSWW's strength as a community network among women, Maya has distributed more than 5,000 micro-credits since 2002 and continues to expand informal credit and “saving groups”. The Foundation for the Support of Women's Work (FSWW), or Kadın Emeğini Değerlendirme Vakfı (KEDV), works in Istanbul, the Marmara earthquake region and southeastern Turkey. Since 1993, their Women and Children Centers have worked with more than 10,000 women and children.  

$5 million to female entrepreneurs

It is this larger grassroots experience of helping women to build and grow as small business owners that helps the organization partner with the private sector. International bank HSBC Turkey last month began working with the foundation and two other NGO's to allocate $5 million in loans to young female entrepreneurs until 2010. “Here, the important thing is to establish the necessary infrastructure in which to deliver the microcredit, rather than the amount,” said Piraye Antika, chief executive officer of HSBC Turkey. “Microcredit enables women to launch businesses with the primary aim of providing a sustainable income source in the struggle against poverty.”

Though government officials point to a growing middle class, the truth is that the number of families in poverty in Turkey today is at an all-time high, up to 28 percent from 8 percent in 2001. More than half of the businesses in Turkey are unregistered, according to the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) The barriers to starting a registered business are steep. One of Maya's aims is for clients' businesses to be prosperous enough one day to qualify for bank loans and register as taxpayers. However, this goal is not yet on the horizon for most of these women. For those who want to start small registered businesses in Turkey, the high rate of taxation and laborious registration process are substantial barriers. Moreover, to qualify for a minimum loan, Turkey's banks require collateral and guarantees that these small businesses cannot provide.

For these reasons the foundation's help empowering women through job training, childcare and community building are especially effective. The director of Maya, the foundation's microfinance group, Belgin Güzaltan said that with the low education and literacy level among clients, loan officers make adjustments that are more “personal than business. They don't hesitate to ask us questions because no one laughs or ignores them,” she said.

Outreach builds on local strength

Following the earthquake of 1999 in Kocaeli, Maya opened its first branch there in 2002 in an effort to help. Kocaeli's former Deputy Governor Metin Yahsi said the women who started businesses with Maya's micro credit have played an important role in the city's healing. “What they do is more specialized and more expensive than what government can offer,” he said. Through the foundation's eight women's centers throughout the Marmara region, hundreds of women are still at work negotiating replacement housing, pooling savings to establish legal housing cooperatives, and pressing local municipalities to help them to rebuild what the earthquake took away. Galipdede Cad, 149/4 Beyoğlu (0212) 249 0700 www.kedv.org.tr

Virtual market matters

An online shopping Web site has recently partnered with FSWW to support businesswomen distributing organic handmade products. The Web site's founder, Sezer Aksoy, said Kadineliyle.com, meaning “made by women's hands”, is the first of its kind in Turkey helping women entrepreneurs living in small cities to find a market to distribute their products. Delivers anywhere in Turkey. www.kadineliyle.com  

Donate clothes to help foundation

Şule Alpaslan, store manager of vintage boutique Nahil which is associated with FSWW, is seeking donations of second-hand clothing and other items for a festival. However, Alpaslan said they are always accepting donations. The shop is in Beyoğlu very close to Taksim square. Heading down Istiklal from Taksim, Bekar Sokak is one of the first few streets on the right.  Bekar Sokak , No: 17 Beyoğlu  (0212) 251 90 85 or (0536) 458 84 23