Road to equality
Road to equality

Migration, entrepreneurship and pushing gender stereotypes

“I spoke to women and said you shouldn’t let yourself be maintained. You should know your own worth and be able to support yourself.”

As IOM is launching its campaign the Road to Equality I have been given the chance to preview what is in store for the month March.

First up, I educated myself with the Road to Equality video. In less than two minutes it answers questions that have been lingering in the back of my mind for a long time. It sets out how gender impacts every aspect of migration: from how women set out on their journeys with less information, to how they’re more at risk along the way and how, when working abroad, women get a worse deal sending remittances to family back home.

There are positive elements too – women who have travelled abroad and then return home can come back with not only greater financial resources but also new cultural experiences. They can therefore be the ones who shake up gender stereotypes in their communities and pave the way for other young women to have a better life. This is something you will see in the videos made by returnee migrant volunteers, another element of the campaign that has inspired me with testimonies of West African women defying the odds in their daily lives.

Later this month, a series of five podcast episodes will bring you the voices of extraordinary West African women. One story that stuck with me was that of Souadou Niang, who talks about her experience of migration, entrepreneurship and what it is like to now be pushing against the gender stereotypes of what a boss looks like. She owns and runs The Palms Luxury Boutique Hotel in Dakar, Senegal, with its stylish rooms, two restaurants and excellent reputation that has attracted the attention of, among others, BBC News.

In the podcast, coming later this month, Souadou looks back on what she gained from travelling to the United States, her decision to return to her native Senegal and what she is doing now to support young women and men.

“(Migration) is an opening of the mind and learning about other cultures is an enrichment.”

Deciding to leave your country when only 18 years old to pursue your dreams is not for everyone, and it can be particularly challenging for a young woman. This is, however, exactly what Souadou Niang did when she left her home country and travelled to the United States.

Born and raised in Dakar as the second youngest of 13 children, Souadou travelled to New York. There, she learned English, studied, and worked in parallel: initially as a shoe saleswoman for a luxury Italian brand, and then in the hotel business, a career path that has allowed her to progress to the point where she is now running her own luxury hotel.

“They called me and my journey in the hotel business started with that.”

After moving to Washington, Souadou was walking past the Ritz Hotel and was curious. She decided to step inside to visit the hotel, and, when inside, she saw that there were staff of African origin working there. She filled out the forms to apply for a job and, not long after, she was offered a cleaning job.

It’s always passion and perseverance.”

She enjoyed the work and worked hard. Her ambition became clear, and she was given more responsibility. She went from working as a cleaner to becoming a manager. In her words: “Yes, they push you and that’s what I liked about it… If you have the passion, you can achieve anything you want. We are used to hearing ‘the sky is the limit’ all the time. But really, the sky is the limit.”

Souadou found the experience of travelling and working in a different culture to be an inspiring one that shaped the rest of her life.

She started her own family whilst living in the US, however, found living far from her home country and family to be difficult, especially when her mother passed away in Senegal. There is a cultural norm and expectation that women take on a care-giving role in the family, for example, when there is ill health. When you have travelled from your country of origin, this is another factor influencing the migration experience of women.

“It is necessary to go and discover, to do the training, get the openness of mind but to come back home to create, like me, to help others who have not been able to leave.”

Road to equality

I can imagine that being faced with the grief of losing a parent, you start to reflect more on your own future. After many years of working in the US, Souadou decided to return home to Senegal. As she puts it: “I always wanted to transfer what I learned in the United States to my Senegalese sisters and brothers.”

Upon returning, she realised that she could apply what she had learned in the tourism sector, in customer service and in running a successful business to create a hotel of her own.

“When you come back home there is a shock as the people who couldn’t get out do not seem open-minded enough.”

She opened Palms Luxury Boutique Hotel upon returning to Dakar, Senegal in 2017. However, this was not without challenges. She experienced rejections from several banks. It took time to convince investors – used to seeing men pitch their business ideas – to take a risk and invest in her project.

“I thought especially for the girls, they needed to be boosted.”

Souadou is passionate about helping young women to fulfil their potential. She says: “The example should not just be to get married and stay at home to have children. When I returned, that’s what I saw. I spoke to women and said you shouldn’t let yourself be maintained. You should know your own worth and be able to support yourself.”

In the hotel, she acts as a role model by having a team that is 80 per cent female and ensuring that her staff have their confidence, skills and ambition grow when working as part of her team.

Like Maika, who features in the Road to Equality campaign, and is breaking stereotypes in Côte d’Ivoire, advising young women to pursue their passions despite prejudice, Souadou advocates for the independence of women.

“I take people who don’t have confidence in themselves, who don’t believe in themselves, and I boost them.”

She has in a way brought the proverbial ‘American Dream’ to her own work. In her hotel she does not allow where someone is starting from to dictate where they are going. Take the pastry chef, who was working as the dishwasher, the chef trained him up and now he’s one of the best pastry chefs in town!

I do find myself still wondering, however, what about women who don’t start from position of privilege, like Souadou undoubtedly did, without the same access to information on safe migration and opportunities to travel regularly to a foreign country? Rose, a character in the short film ‘A Promised Land’, created by Migrants As Messengers Volunteers for the Road to Equality campaign, is a young woman with heaps of potential, who wants to escape her oppressive situation, but did not have a supportive family to help her achieve her dreams, nor access to information on the risks of irregular migration.  

Being a woman on the move physically, intellectually, or professionally in a male-dominated world involves obstacles and it is different depending on each woman’s situation. We need to support one another to keep learning and give ourselves and each other the best chance to succeed.

Souadou’s is just one woman’s story. The story of women’s struggles for gender equality and equal rights is long and inspiring. Women, from different backgrounds and different parts of the world, continue to challenge stereotypes, to be bold and lift up other women along the way. We should celebrate them and create greater opportunities for women to become empowered in taking well-informed decisions about migration, education, training and work. 

What can you do to contribute to the Road to Equality? Here are some ideas:

Visit the campaign page: yenna.org/road-to-equality, stay tuned for the release of the podcasts later this month and, in whatever ways you can:

1. Advocate for equality;
Fight discrimination; and
Learn more about gender and migration.

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