Empowering women globally

Cherie Blair discusses her foundation’s work in the Middle East encouraging female entrepreneurship.

Cherie Blair (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cherie Blair
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is unfair to refer to Cherie Blair as just “the wife of” the former British prime minister, Tony Blair. Cherie, in fact, is a lawyer and a prominent philanthropist and activist, with a career that stands on its own feet.
A year after the Blairs left 10 Downing Street, she launched the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, a development organization that aims to support women entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Recently I sat down with Cherie in her husband’s office in downtown London to discuss her work with the foundation and how she is struggling to overcome endless barriers on making any progress in our too-sensitive region.
Like her husband, who served for many years after he was prime minister as the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East, Cherie also has a special interest in the Middle East.
Indeed, when she first set up her foundation in 2008, some of the very first projects were in Israel and the wider Palestinian territories.
Currently, the foundation runs three projects in the region – one in Israel, one in Lebanon and one in the West Bank. Eight years after the first seeds were sown, some 1,400 women in the region have benefited from the foundation.
When Cherie entered Downing Street, she was already a respectable barrister and a mother of three (their fourth was born during Blair’s term in office). She spoke often of her own childhood and the fact that the women in her house were very active working and contributing to the family’s welfare.
“They always told me,” she said in a newspaper interview, “nothing can stand in your way, you can do everything. This is a good way to create self-confidence and steadfastness vis-à-vis obstacles in life, despite all difficulties.”
This is the thought that characterizes the work of her foundation. She tailors her programs to the situation on the ground. In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, movement is limited for security reasons, and therefore the work is limited to small local groups of women.
The foundation adapted itself to the special “mind-set” of the female population there. “When you are not sure what’s going to happen from day to day, it’s quite difficult to make long term plans.” The foundation projects have tried to encourage the women there to think beyond the crises of tomorrow into long-term planning.
“Because of their link with Syria, they were facing considerable unfair competition coming from Syrian sellers who were undercutting prices and generally not having to comply with the regulations,” Blair said. The way to cope with this challenge was to encourage women to accentuate their added value, quality over price, as well as raising alternative raw material so that they could safely compete with the Syrian women.
Blair stressed time and again how important it was for her that “we are not seen like some sort of an alien spaceship coming in and trying to be involved.” She considered it an absolute must to get the support of the local community, whether husbands, religion or community leaders.
“We’ve been quite lucky with our work in Lebanon, as we have collaborated a lot with the chambers of commerce. Working with the chambers of commerce can make a difference. Obviously there are some men who are conservative and not very keen for their wives to work, but there are other men who are very supportive.”
Blair was surprised to find liberal views even among the conservative, war-weary society of east Lebanon. Attitudes changed once local men understood that the empowerment of their women could pump more money into the household and would upgrade their standard of living.
When the foundation first started work in the Palestinian territories, it ran programs requiring women to travel to training centers in central areas. But it soon became clear that limits on their movement made it preferable to hold smaller meetings nearer to the women.
In addition to the delicate security situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the foundation recognizes the need to overcome obstacles caused by social traditions and follows Blair’s principle to refrain from any action that could be interpreted as condescending.
Here, too, Blair was surprised to find more open doors – and open hearts – than she had anticipated.
“One woman I met when I was there had inherited [with her husband] a restaurant and a grocery shop from her father. Suddenly, she and her husband found themselves with a not very wellrun restaurant and grocery shop. She came on to the training to try and work out what to do, and they decided to focus on the grocery shop first. She did all the business skills training and she ran the business side, while her husband ran the shop. Since then business has flourished, and by the end of the course they had reopened the restaurant. That’s an example of where the woman and the man actually work together to solve a problem.”
She was also surprised to find out another woman’s original solution to resolving a conflict with her husband.
“I remember on my last visit to Israel, I was at an Arab village just outside Jerusalem. A woman was running a sort of a traditional guest house, but her husband was dead against her doing this project. I said, ‘What did you do?’ She said, ‘I got rid of my husband!’”
One woman from Bethlehem used to sell wooden carvings to tourists, but her business suffered greatly as tourism in the area dropped considerably. The woman did not give up hope. She diversified her business into making toys for the local population. She joined the course offered by the foundation and gained new business skills. In class she met another woman whose business was making sweets and chocolates. They teamed up together and started to sell together at parties. They were able to expand their business and find new markets. Eventually, they developed the perfect combination, making wooden gift boxes filled with sweets and chocolates.
Blair summed up the foundation’s modus operandi: “We adhere to what we call the three C’s: Confidence, Capacity Building and access to Capital.”
The foundation needed to adapt its work to traditional customs even among the relatively progressive Druse society in Israel. Although they share the same ethnic background with the Arabs and speak the same language, they tied their political fate with Israel. Unlike most Arab men, Druse men do compulsory service in the army, and by and large the community identifies politically with the Jewish majority.
Despite that, the foundation realized it needed to adopt sensitive sensors.
“We found out that some members of the Druse community have very conservative views,” said Blair. “They go to college, and then – having been told to think beyond the box and open their minds – have to go home again and go into a much more conservative community.”
IN THE foundation’s work with Arab and Jewish women in the Galilee, it was particularly keen to ensure equal numbers of Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis participating.
“This was a challenge as we found that when we advertised the course, we had more Jewish Israelis than Arab Israelis,” Blair said. “So we had to work out ways of reaching out to the Arab women.”
Often, the foundation needs to maneuver between different cultures within the same community. For example, last year it ran a project in Jerusalem among the ultra-Orthodox community.
“Now how you work with the ultra- Orthodox community is not the same way you would work with women in Tel Aviv,” Blair said. “We discovered that some of the women had to have the permission from their rabbi in order to access the Internet. And some of the rabbis said no!”
Overall, Blair said, she has learned to always expect the unexpected.
“We’ve now been doing this since 2008, and we have a track record in helping our women to increase the profit, turnover and employment for others,” she said.
Even women who learned how to make the best out of their business ventures were sometimes lost when it came to money.
“Take access to capital, for example. The truth is women don’t get the same access to capital that men do. Even simple things like women having a bank account, and even in a place like Israel, fewer women have bank accounts than men. Moreover, even when women do have bank accounts, they are often seen as not a safe bet for the banks to lend money to.”
Eight years since she first launched the foundation, Blair sees amazing progress. In the southern Negev, for example, she discovered a female Beduin DJ. The woman engaged in this unlikely vocation precisely because of reluctance within the Beduin society to mix between men and women. Men and women would be separated at weddings, and there would be music in the male tent but not in the female tent. So this woman set up a business providing music for women. The Beduin woman DJ turned out to be such a success that the men wanted to join them!
Another success story is a mother of five from the western Galilee who, after 30 years, quit her job as a teacher and set up a sleep consultancy.
“She came on our course, and we helped her develop her marketing strategy and business and financial skills,” Blair said. “Eventually, she increased her profit over the year by 500 percent!” The woman began offering sessions to her clients over Skype, helping her reach women in communities who otherwise would not have been accessible to her.
“It’s so exciting to see the women doing so well, it is exciting to go over and visit, and it’s also exciting that the women from western Galilee have come over to visit our office here,” Blair said. “When they come over, we introduce them to women’s business ventures around here, and it makes you see how small the world is and how much better it can be when people work together.”
While Blair has confidence and enthusiasm in her work, she recognizes that there is still a long road ahead. In some 17 countries a woman cannot leave the house without the permission of a man. In 18 countries women cannot work without permission from a male relative. In 35 countries widows cannot inherit property in the same way that widowers do.
“There are big structural changes that need to be done in the world which we try to help with our advocacy,” she said. “But in the end, men and women must live together and work together and realize that they can make the best out of it.”