Women Leading the Way

Fairtrade recognizes the vital role of women in agriculture on International Women’s Day

07 March 2014

Today is International Women’s Day – and it’s high time that women around the world get the recognition they deserve.

Around 70% of agricultural work is done by women, according to FAO figures. Yet a recent TWIN report finds that women’s crucial role in farming is often unrecognised, unpaid and invisible. Men own most of the land and take responsibility for transporting crops to market, and subsequently they retain much of the control over household income.

Recognizing and investing in women farmers is good for development. The report found that investing in programmes targeted at women smallholders can have a positive impact on education, health and food security.

At Fairtrade many women are catalysts for change in many of their communities. One in four Fairtrade producers is a woman, and on plantations this figure is even higher, with women making up 47 percent of hired workers in Fairtrade. Women are active in all aspects of Fairtrade, from farming to processing, and in some cases, management of producer organizations and cooperatives.

Each of the women we feature below is taking on a leadership role in their own way, and providing powerful examples to others.

Alida Strauss, General Manager of the Heiveld Cooperative“It's our job to educate people and tell them, ‘you have a right to have your say.’”

Alida Strauss, General Manager, Heiveld Cooperative

A modest, but smart young woman, Alida left her parent’s remote rooibos farm to attend school in Cape Town, 400 kilometres away. When she returned, the Heiveld cooperative had recently formed, enabling black farmers to unite in a cooperative for the first time. She successfully applied for the job of bookkeeper for the cooperative in 2002, and has worked there ever since, getting promoted to General Manager in 2010.

From small beginnings with just 14 members and very little technical knowledge or marketing savvy, Heiveld has grown to 64, and exports organic rooibos tea around the world.

Behind Alida’s unassuming demeanour lies a passion for her work and her community, and a determination to pass this on to young people. She is glad she had the opportunity to return, and wants other young people to do the same.

“At Heiveld, we try to do things to keep people here, to make it exciting for them and give them the self-confidence to believe in themselves,” says Alida.

Her message to the young people in her village: “Go get your education, but come back and do something for your community”.

Alida holds talks at the local school, and invites teachers to bring their students on excursions to the cooperative. Heiveld uses a portion of the Fairtrade Premium to enable young people to go to university in Cape Town with the hope that they will bring their new knowledge back to the community.

The job is not without its challenges, but Alida is proud of what she and others in the cooperative have achieved, and encourages others to feel the same.

“I’ve learned a lot and I am still learning,” she explains. “But it's our job to educate people and tell them, ‘you have a right to have your say: it's your cooperative. Be proud of what's yours’.”

The women of Chetna OrganicsSowing Seeds of Change

The Seed Guardians of Chetna Organic, India

In a country where 90% of all cotton is genetically modified, the women of Chetna Organic in India are playing a pivotal role in the fight to preserve non-GM cotton.

“Women have always been the custodians who have protected seed. This has steadily disappeared,” says Arun Ambatipudi of Chetna Organic. “We are now working to revive and preserve this practice through developing women seed guardians. When women become seed guardians, it means women have a greater say.”

By protecting and collecting the seeds, these women are not only preserving organic farming, but providing a vital lifeline to the farmers. Instead of being stuck buying new cotton seed year after year, farmers can now plant the preserved seeds. That saves them huge costs, and helps to make farming viable and sustainable for them.

“We know that the situation won’t change overnight. But we are seeing successes of women seed guardians gaining respect and decision power,” Arun adds.

Read more about the seed guardians in this powerful blog.

Magda Reza of Sonomoro CooperativeTaking a stand against climate change

Magda Reza, Sonomoro coffee cooperative, Peru

For Magda there is one single threat to the future of her small coffee farm and her entire cooperative: climate change and its devastating effect on their farms. Seasons are changing and rainfall has become unpredictable. Last year was particularly challenging for her and many others in Latin America, as a fungus known as “La Roya” wiped out large numbers of coffee bushes, and with it many farmers’ main source of income.

But the 57 year old mother of five does not give up so easily. Together with nine other farmers from her cooperative, Magda took part in a training programme organized by Fairtrade, Twin Trading and Lidl, a chain of German grocery stores.

A demonstration farm was established where farmers can learn about best practices to help mitigate the effects of climate change and manage their land better, including shade and weed management, composting, treatment of waste water, and more. Now she is taking her new-found knowledge to train others in her cooperative, so they are better equipped to confront the effects of climate change. Watch a film about the project here.

“For me, it’s been very important this work with Fairtrade on climate change and environment because we learn to take care of our environment and improve our farming techniques,” said Magda.

Magda sees herself as an ambassador – for the other members of her cooperative – but now also for the public. Last September she was invited to Germany as part of the annual Fairtrade Fortnight there, and toured the country, explaining to schools, community groups and businesses the need for Fairtrade and climate change support.

“We don’t want charity,” said Magda, during a video chat with Fairtrade supporters in Germany. “We just want the opportunity to work together with you, and to work our own way out of the challenges we face.”

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