Behind the Petal

8 May 2016   |   Tsitsi Choruma, Chief Operating Officer at Fairtrade Africa and Senior Advisor on Gender

Gender inequality is often seen as just a women’s issue, but it is much more. It’s about power balances between men and women, it’s about discrimination, and it’s about changing perceptions.


An abridged version of this piece first appeared on Huffington Post, France, on March 8, 2016 and is reproduced with their kind permission.

Gender inequality is often seen as a women’s issue. Wrong! Gender is not about women – it’s about power balances between men and women, and relationships that are free from prejudice. Achieving gender equality in agriculture means empowering farmers, farm workers and their employers to build communities where everybody feels equally valued.

It’s an issue that we can’t afford to ignore, morally or economically. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization suggests that 150 million people could be lifted out of hunger by removing the gender inequalities prevalent in agriculture. Up to 80 percent of the world’s food is produced by women. Achieving gender equality, and empowering women and girls is one of the 17 newly agreed Global Goals, and many of the other goals include gender equality in their targets.

Fairtrade’s own experience shows us there’s no quick fix to the discrimination and barriers faced by women. Our research on flower farms, for example, reveals the very deep prejudices against women who work on the fringes of this highly lucrative industry. Widespread use of casual female labor increases the risk of human rights abuses, discrimination and sexual harassment. High levels of poverty mean women often work long hours to feed their families, leaving little opportunity for them get involved in leadership and decision-making. Rapid growth in the flower sector should have benefited the women who form the majority of workers, but while there have been some gains, they are nowhere near enough.

Fairtrade’s recently published 2016-2020 gender strategy strongly supports the theme of the 2016 International Women’s Day: “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.” We aim to empower women so they can step up into roles that have been traditionally denied them, and strengthen their ability to influence and deal with negative power wielded over them. At the same time we’re challenging governments, NGOs and businesses to help us solve three broad issues if we are to make Planet 50-50 a reality:

Demystifying gender

I recently led a week-long gender awareness program for managers and workers on farms and plantations in East Africa. As we discussed the concept of gender-based violence, it became clear that there is still a lot of misunderstanding about gender by both men and women. What shocked them most was that men too can be victims of gender inequality. There was a lot of confusion over what constitutes harassment or discrimination in the workplace. I saw first-hand the importance of demystifying gender by tackling misconceptions and empowering people with the knowledge they need to act.

As one participant, Serah, a training manager on a flower farm in Kenya put it: “The workshop was an eye-opener for me. Definitions of ‘gender,’ ‘sex,’ and ‘gender-based violence’ made a lot of sense. I realized that having systems on flower farms that cater for women and men’s needs is very important. Both groups should have an avenue to air their gender related issues.”

I was moved by how open the participants were to sharing and learning from each other, and their willingness to challenge and change their situations.

Enabling a fair income for women

Women have benefited from many projects financed by the Fairtrade Premium – the additional money farmers get for selling their crops on Fairtrade terms. Their lives have been transformed by improving access to clean water and healthcare, or labor-saving devices such as mills for maize. But it’s vital that women also get their fair share of sales income. Securing ownership of crops and land is an important stepping stone to increasing women’s ability to earn an income in their own right. One such project is underway with Fairtrade farmers in Kenya, where the “Growing Women in Coffee” project has involved men transferring ownership of coffee bushes to 150 women farmers, enabling them to earn an independent income.

Putting farmers and workers front and center

Fairtrade alone cannot reverse the generations of gender inequality embedded in many agricultural societies. It’s vital for farmers and workers themselves to be leading the work to tackle the problem, because it’s only when both men and women in these communities understand and identify the issues that they can commit to overcome them. Change will only come when cooperative leaders and plantation managers recognize the impact their policies and procedures have on men and women. Fairtrade has begun putting this into practice – for example in Côte d’Ivoire, where women cocoa farmers, who do the bulk of the work but see little direct benefit from sales, were supported to make a powerful film about the daily challenges they face.

Fairtrade is much more than a label on a bunch of flowers, a bar of chocolate or a cup of coffee. Behind that logo is a whole story about empowering small-scale farmers and workers to take control of their own lives and futures. It’s the story of the women who grew, picked and packed your flowers: women who – backed by the right action from governments, businesses and consumers – can earn a decent income and fulfill their potential as equals.

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