International Women’s Day 2019: Women leaders in trade

Women participate in a meeting in Udaipur, India. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/Allison Joyce

Women participate in a meeting in Udaipur, India. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/Allison Joyce

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, our Head of Africa Programmes Catherine Gunby shares her insights into working with exceptional women leaders.

Traidcraft Exchange specialises in using the power of trade to end poverty. How is this relevant to the role of women?

Involving women is critical to making trade work for people living in poverty. Not only do they make up half the population – so there is huge untapped potential – but they also bring different skills and expertise to men.

Women face challenges and problems which are different to those faced by men. For example, many women don’t own land or assets, so it is very challenging for them to get the loans or other financial products they need to grow their businesses. This is compounded by the fact that women farmers often don’t see their trading activities as being “real” businesses, even though they are very much operating as such.

Another issue is that women are often extremely busy carrying out the bulk of agricultural work and caring duties, as well as other activities like collecting firewood and water. When we start a new project and want to engage local women, we are be very mindful not to overburden them and to organise training sessions that fit around their duties. 

Domestic violence is another major issue, and sadly, many women across the world accept it as a completely normal part of life. In societies that don’t approve of women’s leadership, we are very aware that men can often feel threatened by women who are starting to speak out. Domestic violence is a very complex subject, and while Traidcraft Exchange’s work in trade and supply chains does not address it directly, it is essential to take it into consideration when working in these contexts. 

For International Women’s Day this year, the fair trade community is celebrating women’s leadership. Why is it so important for women to take leadership roles in trade and business?

In a lot of the communities we work in, patriarchal social structures mean that it has traditionally been very difficult to hear women’s voices, because it simply is not the social norm for women to speak out. 

This means that there is huge, untapped potential in communities where women are not being heard. However, it’s very challenging to tap into this potential unless you create a safe space where women are allowed to speak out. Part of our work is to create these safe spaces while sensitising communities on the benefits of having women leaders. 

Women in the communities we work with generally have different kinds of expertise to men – for example, on crop production or caring for children and the elderly, which means they can offer valuable direction on these areas. That’s not to say, of course, that women should only be allowed to speak out about what are considered “women’s issues”. They should be able to lead on all aspects of society, but equally, they should be respected for their specific areas of expertise. 

We also need exceptional women leaders to be mentors to others, and to demonstrate to men that women are more than capable of providing effective, strategic direction when given the opportunity. 

How does Traidcraft Exchange tackle these challenges?

We have learnt that in order for women to effectively take on leadership roles, it’s essential to engage with men. Men will only be fully supportive if they fully understand the aims of the project, the reasons for taking part in it, and the benefits it can bring to their household. 

When we start working with a community we deliberately target women to make sure that they are engaged in the project. Over 50% of the people taking part in all our projects – both in Africa and Asia – are women. Whichever crop we’re working with, we always ask: “Which processes are women involved in?” 

We then conduct a thorough gender analysis of each value chain to discover where there are barriers to women’s engagement, and where there are opportunities. When we start forming community groups, we make sure that women are encouraged to apply for leadership positions.

Another crucial part of our work is to run gender sensitisation sessions with both men and women (this extends to men who haven’t necessarily been engaged in the project). The session leader sits down with members of the community and asks questions that will get people thinking and provoke a reaction.

An example of this could be showing two posters: one with a woman carrying a pile of wood on her head, with her husband walking behind her, carrying a baby. The trainer might ask: “What do you think about this image?” The idea is to get men and women talking about gender norms, together, and discussing if there are any attitudes that might need to change.

We also have to be very aware of the different contexts we work in. In Senegal, for instance, the women we work with are noticeably more comfortable engaging in leadership positions than in other contexts. On our last visit, many women were complaining about the issue of land ownership. Just seeing that they speak out when something isn’t fair shows how much confidence they have.

Which women from Traidcraft Exchange’s projects have stood out for you as being truly exceptional leaders?

We work with many exceptional women, but someone who really stood out for me was a woman called Monica from our climate-resilient agriculture project in Kenya. She was a widow and 94 years old when she joined the project!

Monica learnt to grow green grams and beans using new techniques, and learnt about terracing, soil conservation and water conservation. She even became a model farmer and demonstrated best practices to other farmers. She had the right mindset and the ability to embrace new ideas, and the project helped her enormously in terms of increasing her income, skills and training. She was an extraordinary woman with a very strong personality!

Thinking about these women, what skills, traits – or even circumstances – do you think they share that have enabled them to become successful leaders in the face of gender barriers?

It’s a question of being prepared to put in the hard work. What has struck me about all the women I have met in leadership positions, particularly at the community level, has been their willingness to persevere, their strong sense of confidence in themselves, and an openness to new ideas.

Where that confidence comes from, I can’t say, and it isn’t necessarily the same for each woman – it could come from having a hard life and simply having to survive, or it could be a result of having a supportive family – but they all have a strong sense of “I can do this”.

Catherine Gunby is Head of Africa Programmes at Traidcraft Exchange.

Tom Sharman