‘You no longer have to lower your head and wait for the man to tell you what to do; now we make our own decisions and share activities and responsibilities with our partners.’
Adilia Amador Sevilla from Achuapa, Nicaragua
An innovative development is currently taking place in Nicaragua. A number of co-operatives with Fair Trade contracts are including in the costs of production (for sesame oil and green coffee) a component for the unpaid work of women. They see this work as supporting production and creating stability – and, as such, deserving recognition and remuneration. This is exceptional in a world which consistently undervalues women’s work and refuses either to measure it or count it as economic activity, despite feminist campaigning over several decades. The money raised is being used by the co-operatives for collective projects to empower women and improve gender balance in the wider community. As Adilia says, the relations between men and women are being radically altered.
So how did this initiative come about?
There are three types of unpaid work mainly done by women: work which is part of actual production although unpaid (like sorting coffee cherries); work which contributes indirectly to production (like washing work clothes); and domestic and other work in the home which contributes generally to the stability of the household and the community.
The innovation of this initiative lies in the fact that it includes pay not only for the first and second of these, but also for the third, seeing women’s work in the home as crucial in providing a stable environment within which cash crop production can take place.
The starting point for this development came in 2008, when the co-operative Juan Francisco Paz Silva needed to renew its Community Trade (equivalent to Fair Trade) contract for sesame oil with The Body Shop. The co-op and ETICO, (an ethical trading company that works closely with the co-op) both had strong gender policies and were looking for ways of supporting women through this contract. The idea of including a component for women’s unpaid work came as a flash of inspiration. After rough calculations, a figure of 960 cordobas a year, approximately $50 per manzana (0.7 of a hectare) was agreed – as a recognition and recompense for the contribution to production made by women.
This calculation, and its addition to the costs, was accepted by The Body Shop, although they wanted more justification and more detail as to what was actually being paid for. Subsequently some coffee buyers have also agreed to make a similar addition.
The funds generated from this price increase are used to provide resources for women’s empowerment in the community – for example, savings and loans schemes which fund artisan work, catering and the preparation of jams and wines for sale in the co-op shop. Educational programmes are also a priority, and groups of women are encouraged to work together in collective businesses. Since this development started, there have been more women than men joining the co-ops as new members, an increase in the numbers of women initiating new projects, and a remarkable 100-per-cent payback rate on loans made to women.
These changes have led to an increased sense of self-esteem among the women, who now have greater confidence to speak and participate in the affairs of the co-operatives. The women feel more valued and less timid; many say they now have a voice. They no longer feel invisible, or as though they were the property of their husbands. There is a general feeling from the women, a sentiment that is often repeated, that: ‘somos tomadas en cuenta’ (We are now appreciated, taken into account).
The decision to include a component for women’s unpaid labour, including domestic work in the home, in contracts setting out the costs of production for sesame oil and coffee appears to have had a remarkable effect on the women beneficiaries. In part this would seem to be due to the co-operative/Fair Trade framework, which prioritizes solidarity and collective responsibility. It is also the case that this is not a time-limited aid project, but represents a permanent change to the structure of labour costs which so far has been received positively by the buyers. The recognition this entails is crucial. Though this initiative has taken place in the Global South, at the start point of the value chain, the principle applies equally to the situation of women in other parts of the world, whose domestic work is similarly undervalued.
By Felicity Butler and Catherine Hoskyns.