How Marie-Paule Wauters is empowering women in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Brenda Odhiambo

For International Women’s Day, we spoke to Marie-Paule Wauters, a Mastercard Foundation Scholar at USIU-Africa and a third-year student pursuing a degree in International Business Administration. She shares more about her journey and the impactful initiatives she has spearheaded to uplift women in her community.

Marie-Paule was born and raised in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Her journey towards impactful entrepreneurship began at Shaumba Girls’ High School, where she discovered a passion for education and entrepreneurship, despite pursuing science subjects. During this time, she actively participated in various training courses on leadership, entrepreneurship, education, empowerment, and social change, while also volunteering in several NGO initiatives.

After graduating from high school in 2017, Marie-Paule was awarded a scholarship to the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she studied entrepreneurial leadership. This experience further fueled her desire for education, entrepreneurship, and women's empowerment. Following her graduation in 2019, she dedicated her gap year to training her community, high school students (including those from her prior school), and young women in a village high school on entrepreneurship. This hands-on experience solidified her commitment to creating meaningful change.

In 2021, she joined USIU-Africa as a Mastercard Foundation Scholar, where she is currently in her third year. She notes that the program has further expanded her knowledge through intensive training in transformational leadership and entrepreneurship.

Marie-Paule's dedication to empowering women in the DRC is deeply personal, shaped by her mother's resilience and the struggles of women in her community. Raised by a widowed mother who supported their family through an informal business, Marie-Paule witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by women in similar circumstances.

“I watched my mother work tirelessly to raise my siblings and I by selling cleaning products. Despite being in a resource-limited environment and lacking knowledge of entrepreneurship and business management, she ran her business as best as she could. Initially, her business thrived, and she always strived to provide us with the best. However, it eventually started declining due to various reasons, such as a lack of legal documents, limited information on business processes, failure to fully meet the population's needs, and not using the correct tools. These challenges had significant financial implications for our family,” she says.

"My mother's experience became the cornerstone of my inspiration, fueling my desire to create meaningful change by bridging the gap between knowledge and informal jobs in my community. Countless women in our community face similar challenges, and even more, which leaves them financially insecure, given that in many cases, they also have the burden of sole responsibility for their families,” she adds.

Addressing key challenges faced by women in informal businesses
Marie-Paule identifies several challenges faced by women engaged in informal businesses in the DRC, including limited access to resources, gender-based discrimination, lack of education and skills, social and cultural barriers, and financial insecurity. To tackle these challenges, she initiated the SHUJA program, focusing on comprehensive business training, access to financial resources, and building confidence among women entrepreneurs.

"Through SHUJA, we provided women with tailored business training programs in Lingala, our local language, equipping them with essential skills in business planning, financial management, marketing, and product development,” she says. “Additionally, the program facilitated access to microfinance services and savings programs, empowering women to start and grow their businesses,” she adds.

Marie-Paule's community-driven initiatives have yielded remarkable success stories, demonstrating the transformative impact of empowerment.

“We have witnessed remarkable transformations among the women who took part in the program. One of the participants, Mama Yvette, was able to launch a small-scale catering business after completing the business training program. Despite the initial challenges, she persevered and was able to gradually expand her clientele. Another participant, Mama Bibi, who initially worked alone was able to employ someone to make donuts for her business, which has greatly improved her sales per day. These success stories have inspired other women to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams,” she notes.
Empowering women in informal businesses not only stimulates economic growth but also fosters greater gender equality and social cohesion within communities. Marie-Paule emphasizes, "By providing women with tools and resources to succeed, we create engines of local commerce, generating income and improving living standards."

For Marie-Paule, empowering women in informal businesses has a multifaceted impact on the broader community and economy in DRC. More than 70% of women in the DRC are in informal sector and less are educated or have access to education.

“By providing women with tools and resources to start and grow their businesses, we stimulate economic growth at the grassroots level. These women become engines of local commerce, creating jobs, generating income, and contributing to the overall prosperity of their communities. Moreover, empowered women often invest a significant portion of their earnings in their families' well-being, leading to improved healthcare, education, and living standards. This effect of empowerment not only fosters socio-economic development but also fosters greater gender equality and social cohesion within communities,” she says.

In resource-constrained settings like the DRC, Marie-Paule advocates for a combination of education, skills training, access to resources, and advocacy for policy reforms to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. She emphasizes the importance of economic empowerment and targeted interventions to address cultural and social barriers.

As we celebrate International Women's Day, Marie-Paule shares a message of resilience, solidarity, and hope to women around the world facing similar challenges. She encourages women to persevere, support one another, and seize opportunities for education and empowerment, envisioning a more just and inclusive world where every woman has the opportunity to thrive.

Looking ahead, Marie-Paule's aspirations for the future of women's empowerment in the DRC include expanding SHUJA’s initiatives to reach more women in rural and marginalized communities, investing in education, and creating opportunities for women to participate in decision-making processes. Her vision is to create a society where every woman has the power and agency to shape her own destiny and contribute to the collective prosperity of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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