Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Age of Fair Trade

There is a growing understanding that women’s empowerment has a positive ripple effect on families, communities, and cultures. That includes women’s economic empowerment, meaning women’s ability to participate as equals in the marketplace and household with decision-making power and control over economic resources.

Putting this idea into practice sounds deceptively simple: get more income into women’s hands, and the benefits will follow. But barriers exist which we must all work to overcome.

Last month, our Chief Marketing Officer Anna Banks spoke on a panel called Her Money, Her Voice at the Global Washington conference in Seattle, exploring how women’s economic empowerment leads to increased political freedoms and improved access to human rights. Key takeaways from her talk are below, and you also can watch a full recording of the panel.

When women are economically empowered the whole community benefits.

In order to get around some of the cultural barriers for women, Fair Trade provides a framework that creates opportunities for women and incentivizes gender equality. How? In return for working to meet Fair Trade’s rigorous social, economic, and environmental standards to earn certification, the producer can earn an additional amount of money for every Fair Trade Certified™ product sold that goes into a worker-controlled Community Development Fund. In order to access this fund, the workforce must elect a committee that must be representative of the workforce in terms of gender and ethnicity. From there, the committee decides together how to spend their funds to improve their lives and meet their unique social, economic, and environmental needs. So, if the workforce is 50 percent women, 50 percent of the committee must also be female, meaning 50 percent of the committee consists of women with decision-making power.

We can see women’s influence manifest in the projects that are being carried out, specifically investments like funding of daycares, subsidized grocery stores, cooking stoves, washing machines, and access to healthcare, that benefit the health and well-being of families and communities for years to come.

We see projects like these creating desperately-needed domestic relief for women. It’s difficult enough as working women in the “developed world” to get dinner on the table for our families after getting home from work ourselves, and this is with plentiful running water, appliances, and supportive spouses and partners at our side. Imagine, then, the stress that balancing work and home would be without those things. Often, these home and work demands that compete for women’s attention in developing areas—walking miles to fetch water, cooking meals, and caring for children, all while balancing a factory or farm job—leave no room for the added responsibilities that come with leadership involvement.

 

We must create safe spaces for women.

Before we can work on “economic empowerment” for women, often we are in environments where we need to work on just basic empowerment first. Empowerment is one of the key principles of Fair Trade, i.e. feeling heard and having the opportunity to speak up. To promote empowerment and gender equality in the workplace, Fair Trade USA conducts surveys with farmers, workers, and fishermen in certified facilities. People are interviewed in their native language and by someone of the same gender, with questions like:

  • In your opinion, does your supervisor respect you?
  • Does the cooperative act in your best interest?
  • Have you shared a problem or suggestion with you Fair Trade Committee in the last 12 months?

By creating a structure that makes the workforce feel heard and creating a safe space to answer these questions fully and candidly, it creates an environment that allows us to uncover serious issues like sexual harassment and other pressures on women that might not otherwise surface and be addressed.

 

We must celebrate progress wherever and whenever we see it.

How can we be optimistic about the future while women across the world are repeatedly failed in so many ways? Plain and simple, we celebrate progress where we see it. Will progress be harder-fought in some areas of the world than others? Yes. Will we continue to push for progress? Absolutely. We will celebrate the incredible ingenuity of women everywhere who inspire us to lead, stand out, and stand up for gender equality —women like Isabel Uriarte in Peru, who began the all-female coffee growing group Café Femenino which now empowers women coffee farmers in more than 10 countries. Women in co-ops in Colombia training for professional roles like logistics, agronomy, commercial sales, and accounting—roles that not long ago would have been off limits for women. Out of empowerment comes confidence, and out of confidence we hear the new voice of women, representing the new perspective on the triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental responsibilities.


Anna Banks is Chief Marketing Officer at Fair Trade USA.

manager, vice president, mother of two

Luz Medina, the packing plant line manager at Del Cabo's packing plant, relays information to other production managers via walkie-talkie. Luz, a mother of two, has been living in Ensenada and working at Del Cabo since 2001. She currently serves as packing plant line manager and vice president of her Fair Trade Committee. She says, "I'd like to see child care centers in the plants and farms. It would not benefit me because my kids are older, but I see this as a necessity for many families, especially the ones that migrated recently and don't have family here to help. Also, by purchasing our tomatoes and cucumbers you can contribute to our processes of improving our lives. Everyone wins, right?"

fair trade committee

S. Kalavathi (center), an overlock tailor and president of her Fair Trade Committee, at a general assembly of workers in Tirupur, India.

funding washing machines in ecuador

Carmen Pucuji (right), a single mother from Cotopaxi, Ecuador, stands with her 14-year-old son next to a washing machine purchased with Fair Trade Community Development Funds. Carmen has been working in the flower industry for 11 years. "I work for my son," she says. “He is everything to me."