Today marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act becoming law, heralding the beginning of women’s suffrage in Britain. Ever since, the direct political participation of women, in the UK and internationally, has helped to transform assumptions about their role in society.
Even so, the radical shift in perspective, catalysed by suffrage, brought with it a recognition of women’s suffering. The notion of equal opportunities, for example, implies a set of aspirations in the face of a persistent legacy of oppression.
In response, over the last 100 years, ambitions for women’s liberation have leapt beyond the political sphere, identifying severe challenges around education, representation, parenting and exploitation.
On all these fronts, the UK’s social enterprise community is increasingly taking a leading role. Many organisations have been set-up with the express purpose of confronting gender inequality while others have made this cause the principle focus of their profits and social objectives, as the following organisations demonstrate.
Based in Liverpool, Blackburne House provides education and training opportunities to local women in areas where they are underrepresented in the workforce, providing the skills they need to live financially independent lives. They also provide services that remove barriers to education to support women who face barriers to employment.
Blackburne House run a number of social enterprises that support their educational mission, including a nursery, bistro, health spa, an events facility, as well as the School for Social Enterprise North West.
London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) provide quality childcare services in 37 nurseries across London. LEYF reinvest all profits back into their business to deliver their social impact – through training staff, supporting local employment of nursery staff and through their apprenticeship programmes, and supporting mothers and fathers returning to work. 48% of the parents LEYF serves are supported with a free nursery place, so children from less affluent families can access early years education and their parents can work. They also run nurseries in disadvantaged areas where these kinds of services would not ordinarily be available.
The number one cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 is childbirth, and four out of five victims of human trafficking are girls. OneSqin CIC makes and sells natural skin cream and hypoallergenic, organic cotton tampons and donates 100% of their profits to charities that give girls at risk of becoming child brides the chance to stay in school, access health services, and delay childbirth.
OneSqin supports pupils at the SEGA Girls School in Tanzania through the NPO Nurturing Minds in Africa. SEGA students are vulnerable girls, who have left school before completing their primary education. Some have lost their parents to malaria, AIDS or other diseases; some can’t afford uniforms, books or transport to government schools; some work to support their families and have no time to attend school.
Global Seesaw is an ethical fairtade shop and social enterprise whose mission is to support women who, due to poverty, have been trafficked and sexually exploited – a journey that often leaves them unskilled, uneducated, in poor physical and mental health, and without any other means of survival. Global Seesaw partner with producer groups across the globe set up to bring freedom to women in their locality through sustainable employment, giving them an opportunity for a new life and financial independence. Through their partners, women are trained and supported in their new employment and in many cases offered medical, emotional and child care support as well as literacy skills training.
Many social enterprise are tackling gender inequalities not only through the people they work with, but also through who they employ and who leads them. Our most recent State of Social Enterprise report found that 41% of UK social enterprises are led by women and over half have a female majority workforce. Although there is a long way to go in achieving equality for women and many challenges lie ahead, social enterprise is proving to have an increasingly important role to play in empowering women in the UK and across the globe.