Fair Trade is much more than just an economic formula guaranteeing the farmers more money than conventional coffee sales. One of the most exciting aspects of the movement to me is the impact Fair Trade has on women throughout the developing world. Within Fair Trade cooperatives, gender equity is required. That generally means that women have to be represented on the Board of Directors and on other governing bodies, and of course, they can vote and their votes are equal. I am not naïve, however, and I know that in many of the societies where coffee grows women’s empowerment is still a goal and is resisted subtly and sometimes overtly by the ruling men. At the same time, I have seen powerful indications of change. Five of the fourteen coops we work with around the world are managed by women. And those women use their power not only to improve the lives, social standing and self-esteem of women in their own coops, but each of them reaches out and mentors women in other coops. An awesome model for all of us.
We take voting for granted, and many of us don’t even bother to vote in primaries or in general elections. For women (and men) who have never had the opportunity to participate in decisions that effect and control their economic and political lives, voting is a powerful act. I have seen enormous changes in women over the years as they participate and have their voices heard in their communities and on the world stage. One example, Esperanza Castillo from Pangoa Cooperative in Peru. When we first met in 2003, she was a shy and quiet manager of a small coop (about two hundred families). Over the years, Esperanza has developed into an internationally recognized voice for women and Fair Trade. At one event she got a standing ovation when the next speaker (Hilary Clinton) got warm applause. In Ethiopia, Nekempte has gone from an “office girl” when we first met in 2000, to the number three in command of Oromia Cooperative, which has over 100,000 members!
The point here is not that all of the problems of women’s empowerment have been solved by Fair Trade. Rather, the movement opens an oasis of opportunity to women in rural societies where there are not that many other institutional openings. That is the true evolution of change beneath the surface of a cup of Fair Trade coffee.