Gender Equality: Good for Women, Business & Development

By Shivani Reddy, Policy Manager at Fairtrade Foundation

As we approach International Women’s Day, some might question whether we still need an officially designated day to champion women’s rights. Some might say that we now enjoy equal opportunities in our workplaces and in society at large, and that the battle has been won. But while businesses are likely to have a gender policy in place for their employees, most still have some work to do to ensure that gender equality extends right along their supply chain.

In agriculture, for example, women make up almost half the workforce in developing countries. Yet they account for just 22 per cent of the farmers who are registered as members of the 1,210 small producer organisations certified by Fairtrade globally. This is despite the fact that Fairtrade Standards support gender equality and explicitly encourage the participation of women.

This week, Fairtrade will publish Equal Harvest, a new study that explores the barriers to women’s participation in agricultural supply chains, and makes a number of recommendations for businesses, governments, NGOs and producer groups, as well as the Fairtrade system itself.

Focusing on banana growers in the Dominican Republic, cotton growers in India and tea growers in Kenya, our study found that legal, social and cultural norms continue to act as barriers to women’s participation, for example, membership of co-operatives can be dependent on owning land or crops, some agricultural work may be deemed inappropriate for women, and women may be expected to undertake most of the domestic work in the home, giving them less time to participate in producer groups.

Of course, women can still benefit from Fairtrade even if they are not registered members of a certified producer group. The Fairtrade Premium is often invested in projects that benefit women, such as access to childcare, education for their children, or training to help them diversify their income. But enabling more women to join the organisations that grow produce such as bananas, cotton and tea, could benefit businesses and support global development, as well as increasing women’s income, influence and independence.

Research has shown that increased participation of women can boost productivity, resulting in more income for farmers and their families, and a more sustainable supply chain for businesses. When women are in control of more household income, there are improved development outcomes in areas such as health and education, and businesses can also turn women’s involvement into a selling point – as Equal Exchange and Sainsbury’s have both done by launching products that are ‘grown by women’.

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, Fairtrade is urging more businesses to support and incentivise the producer organisations they work with to address gender equality. As a first step, we would encourage businesses to invest in supply chain analysis, so that they can understand the barriers that women face and can use this insight to form the basis of a gender action plan. They could also consider offering financial or technical support to the producer organisations they work with, to assist them in developing their own gender plans.

It is clear that achieving gender equality for women farmers will require a concerted and collaborative effort from everyone in the supply chain. That includes Fairtrade, which has recently appointed a gender specialist to work with producer groups and other partners, to help them remove the barriers that women farmers face. While progress has undoubtedly been made, there is more to do to ensure that women get their fair share of the benefits of international trade.

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