International Women’s Day 2019: How do we champion women in trade?

Shufia Begum took part in our project with women jute workers in Bangladesh. She stands with home-made snacks to sell in her shop. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/GMB Akash

Shufia Begum took part in our project with women jute workers in Bangladesh. She stands with home-made snacks to sell in her shop. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/GMB Akash

This International Women’s Day, we’re joining the rest of the fair trade community in celebrating exceptional women leaders. Our Director of Programmes, Maveen Pereira, explains how Traidcraft Exchange’s work enables women to exert more power in the supply chain and take on leadership roles.

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“Championing women in trade” is a key part of Traidcraft Exchange’s strategy to transform trade for the better. Can you explain why this is?

At Traidcraft Exchange, we know that while women play critical roles in production, all too often, their contribution goes unrecognised. If you look at the tea supply chain, which we’ve worked in for many years, 80% of tea is picked by women. Even so, women are still not really seen as critical to that supply chain – despite the fact that the timing and quality of picking is crucial to the quality of the final product.

Similarly, in the jute supply chain, women play the crucial role of fibre extraction besides supporting men in the fields. “Golden fibre”, as it is known, is extracted almost exclusively by extremely poor, mostly landless women, who pull the fibre out from the stalk, wash and dry it. But they are paid a very low wage – in many cases, no cash is paid at all, and they are only allowed to take away the stalks to sell as fuel for cash.

 
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Shakhina works in a tea plant nursery in Bangladesh. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/GMB Akash

 

This all goes to show that while the work of women underlies trade, they are not valued because they do not own any assets or the means of production. Women themselves are socialised into thinking of themselves as second class citizens, subservient to men. This socialisation acts as a barrier to education, skills, opportunities, and in some communities, restrictions on mobility and the kind of roles they can play in society.

As a result, women find themselves restricted to the home and domestic responsibilities. At Traidcraft Exchange, we have seen that when women are able to develop themselves, their skills and their livelihoods, they are in a much stronger position to develop their communities long-term.

We also see a big difference between men and women’s wages in most countries, and we hear lots of excuses as to why this is the case. From our point of view, if trade is to be fair, then every person playing a role in it needs to be recognised and recompensed equally for the same work. In our analysis of supply chains, we start by identifying the roles of men and women.

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Can you explain in brief terms how Traidcraft Exchange works with women to enable them to get a better deal from trade?

Our starting point is to identify, understand and recognise the role that women play. When working at the community level, we ensure we work with both men and women and bring them together. When we are supporting local communities to set up producer institutions, cooperatives, companies or associations, we ensure that we are targeting the parts of the supply chain where women are, and that women are well-represented.

We work to build women’s leadership by providing women with opportunities to develop skills, understand the supply chain and involve them in decisions. We believe that when women have economic power, it translates into decision-making power in the household and community.

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We know it’s never easy to change entrenched attitudes. What are some of the most effective strategies you know of that can do this effectively?

Traidcraft Exchange takes a particular approach to this based on the local context. In Bangladesh we use the ‘family’ approach. We are very cognisant of the pressure put on women by men in some communities, and so to have a positive impact in this context, we work with both women and men. Although the focus of our work is on women, we believe strongly that without the full support of men, women will not have the freedom to advance in the way they should be able to.

 
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Husband and wife Patrick and Feata divide the work equally on their farm in Kariari, Eastern Kenya. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/Nathan Siegal

 

This way of working has been very successful in a context where it tends to be very difficult to work with women by themselves – men can often be suspicious of our activities and not allow women to join meetings. Therefore, we ensure that both are involved in groups and associations, and that we are constantly challenging them in a subtle way to facilitate discussion and dialogue.

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When you think of strong female leadership in Traidcraft Exchange’s programme work, is there anyone in particular who comes to mind? Has anyone inspired you on a personal level?

There are many of them! One woman in our cotton project in India, Meera*, came from a community called the Devadasi. In this community, young girls are offered by their families to the temple, where they are meant to serve the priests. Over the passage of time, however, they have come to be treated more like prostitutes and are shunned by their communities.

Meera* eventually managed to leave the temple and joined our project, where she became the leader of the women’s group we helped to establish in the cotton supply chain. She was a very strong woman who played a vital role in the project, advising women on business opportunities beyond growing cotton and led the women’s group to call for better services in their villages, like electricity.

Another woman in Bangladesh, Shagori, also changed her life thanks to the skills she learnt from our jute project. She demonstrated amazing leadership and business skills throughout and played an active part in recruiting local women to join the groups. She even stood in a local election, where she was elected as the president of the Upazilla Agro-Producers Association of Faridpur.

All the while, Shagori was very much supported by her husband, and, using her own experience of standing for election, she encouraged other women to do the same. She now owns a little grocery store beside her home that she runs herself. Her family now has two cows and several goats and chickens, and is producing vegetables in the backyard.

In our Kenya tea project, we worked closely with Patricia, who came to be known as Fair Trade Mama! Again, she was instrumental in mobilising local women to take part in the project and supporting them to diversify their incomes by producing other food crops, such as honey and passion fruit. She eventually came to the UK and spoke to communities about fair trade and fair trade tea as part of Fairtrade Fortnight.

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What are some of the most strikingly positive results from Traidcraft Exchange’s project work with women?

Some of the most remarkable results have been from a project we’ve been running in Bangladesh with women working in jute, livestock and vegetable supply chains. It’s clear that women’s lives have been transformed by the project – they are making more decisions and running multiple businesses, having diversified beyond the jute sector.

 
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A women’s at their weekly meeting in Faridpur, Bangladesh.

Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/GMB Akash

 

The women in the project now feel very confident about seeking services from the government – they are almost demanding it! Gender equality in leadership has also improved, with a few women now standing for local government elections. They are continually recruiting more women to join their group, and are thinking more about the community as a whole than about issues on an individual level.

There is anecdotal evidence, too, that levels of domestic violence have gone down. If this is true, it is an encouraging sign that men are now starting to recognise the role of women, appreciating the value of their work, and are allowing them to get out into the community and lead on their own activities. The women who have taken part in the project are very vocal and articulate now, which is wonderful to see.

*Name has been changed.

Maveen Pereira is Traidcraft Exchange’s Director of Programmes.

Nancy Demuth