By Alison Ward, CEO, CottonConnect
#BeBoldForChange is the theme for International Women’s Day 2017. While progress has been made around the world, the latest estimates from the World Economic Forum reveal that there’s still a long journey ahead of us, with women and men unlikely to reach economic equality before 2186. It represents an important moment to galvanise efforts to deliver greater change for women globally.
In developing economies such as India, where CottonConnect runs some of its key sustainable cotton programmes, gender equality remains a major problem. According to the UN’s Gender Equality Index, India currently ranks at 130 out of 188 countries, with gender equality one of the most pressing development challenges facing the country.
These inequalities are particularly evident in the cotton industry. India is the world’s second-largest producer of cotton and women play a crucial role in cotton cultivation. Figures from the International Trade Centre, a joint development agency of the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations, show that women account for 70% of the cotton planting, and 90% of the hand-picking. Yet, the average income for women in rural India is just 78% of what men typically earn. We also found that female farmers and smallholders are often under-recognised and under-supported, with little or no access to formal training.
Our experience shows that tailored programmes focusing on the economic empowerment of women in farming can make a real difference in addressing discrepancies and can be transformative for the wider communities involved. When women are economically empowered to make decisions and to take charge of land and their finances, not only does their household income grow, the entire community benefits. Often, these women become role-models within their communities and inspire other women to come along on the journey.
But how do we get there? How do we make sure programmes focused on the economic empowerment of women are embraced, bearing in mind the complexity surrounding the roles of women in Indian society? Simply, we have found that key lies in involving men. Often the best way of doing this is by highlighting the wider benefits that female economic empowerment can bring, right from the start.
Tackling the empowerment of women by working with both women and men is not a new concept, but it deserves greater focus. It was examined as part of an important 2012 study by Oxfam, Women Leading Change. The report looked at key learnings from five Asian organisations that promote women’s empowerment. In each instance, getting men on side positively impacted the delivery of the programmes. What these organisations found is that when men are able to experience the wider benefits of these programmes, attitudes towards traditional gender roles begin to shift. Men start being more supportive of their wives playing a greater role in family matters. This ultimately provides organisations with more freedom and support to drive the empowerment of women.
As part of the Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme, run in partnership with CottonConnect and the Self Employed Women’s Association, we’ve experienced a similar development. Over a three- year period, the programme trained 1,251 female smallholders through classroom sessions, in-field training and learning groups. The focus of the training was introducing sustainable farming methods that help women increase their incomes and improve their livelihoods. Farmers were trained on the most appropriate farming techniques for their land, from seed selection, sowing, soil, water, pesticide and pest management, to picking, fibre quality, grading and storage of the harvested cotton. The training also covered health and safety and working conditions.
The latest results show that in the third year of their training, our female farmers achieved a 247% increase in income. This money went directly back into the community, improving family welfare and investment in the household. One of the farmers involved, Kanchanben, told us: “I invested the extra income I made throughout the programme into my children’s education. One of my children is now a secondary school teacher, and another is studying at university. I’m very proud of them.”
Our first intake of female farmers is now also receiving additional training through the Farmer Business School, providing them with basic financial training and management skills. The training covers a range of different areas including how to manage input costs, the importance of book-keeping and how to buy and sell cotton as part of a collective to help them get the best price.
Right from the start, the men in the community were engaged in the programme and kept up to date to ensure continued support. We also invited them to training sessions to give them a better idea of what the programme looks like in practice. This inclusive approach contributed to the success of the programme.
Primark’s Sustainable Cotton programme has made the women both agriculturally and socially active. Their voices are heard and respected, and they are now part of the decision-making process with their families and communities, which demonstrates a real cultural shift. As cotton farming tends to support five people in each household, the benefit of this programme alone is thought to have reached over 6,000 people in rural India. In 2016 the programme was extended to reach a further 10,000 farmers over a six-year period.
The positive impact the programme has had on the families and communities involved helped to get the men on side and narrow down the gender equality gap.
#BeingBoldForChange is right and needed, but our experience has taught us that only by speaking to both sides of the societal gender divide in developing countries will we see greater economic empowerment of women.
This article first appeared on Ethical Corporation and is reproduced with permission.
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