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Asrat's Story: Women As Key Market Actors
Asrat Tadese – Hombolarena Kebele, SNNPR, Ethiopia
She stood at the door to her house as we approached and with a huge smile, welcomed us in. Asrat Tadese led us to a room that housed 34 egg-laying chickens that she had purchased from a chick supplier in Sodo town.
The room was probably 5 feet by 5 feet with some hay strewn over the floor, and feed and water were placed in small containers in the corner of the room. The room was easily one of the former bedrooms for Asrat’s children, but as a single parent, she was now using that room for poultry and her family slept in the third of the three-room house she owned. My colleague and I asked how she got into the poultry business. She explained how she had received training and support from her village extension officer on how to raise egg-laying chickens and was told with relatively little investment, she could begin making money as long as she cared for the chicks, fed them, kept them housed, and ensured they received proper vaccinations to ward off disease. She was convinced then, that chicken rearing was an excellent income generating opportunity and immediately decided to invest. With the help of the extension officer’s knowledge and connections, she was able to buy a “package” of fifty 45-day old chicks. She made connections to the university close to where she lived and through this, established a consistent buyer for the eggs her chickens soon began producing. Unfortunately, she explained, some of the chickens died due to disease, but by the time the chickens had been producing eggs for over two months, she had managed to sell enough eggs to make close to $75 – money that for her and her family could support their expenses for quite some time. Asrat shared that it was at this time that she was forced to sell her chickens because she had to travel to visit a sick relative. The sale of these chickens made enough money for her travels and a few additional expenses. Once she returned home after a number of weeks of caring for her family, she immediately purchased another fifty one-day old chicks. And these were the chicks we were looking at in the small room. Asrat explained that she was also involved in a number of other farming activities, as most Ethiopian smallholder farmers are, though she believed that her poultry business was an excellent income generating opportunity and was already having visions of expanding it in the near future.
As a practitioner that focuses on identifying where women are in markets and thinking of ways to not only highlight their place in the economy but support these women to excel in what they are already doing or gain positions and roles in new and exciting places, it is often hard for me to not see the women. In my opinion, women are everywhere in markets yet so often, the big businesses, bureaucracy, and governments fail to recognize this. Women are farmers (though government officials in Ethiopia told me otherwise); women are the traders; women are the retail/shop owners and the strong masterminds behind growing businesses; yet they are often overlooked. Women are sometimes explained away as “undedicated” or “lazy”, because they are often the ones caring for their children or other family members who need them – thus forcing them to stop their own businesses to ensure the health and wellbeing of others (as seen in Asrat’s case). In spite of these realities, women continue to play key roles in society and markets, and without their hard work and dedication, many opportunities would go unseized.
Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) and Gender Equality initiatives are gaining traction (at least these particular terms are) despite the fact that they have been in our discourse for decades. While the story of Asrat shared earlier highlights the fact that women do exist within markets and they are in fact, everywhere, what is still a reality is that there is a lack of “equal access of women and men to economic, social and political opportunities.” (1)
The work that MEDA’s women’s team does, the work of women’s economic empowerment and integrating gender into value chains, is about acknowledging that women are a part of market systems and then supporting women to overcome barriers which keep them from fully participating, so that they can step out of poverty, make decisions about their lives, and take on new roles in their communities.Extensive research has been done on the challenges that women face which prevent them from taking advantage of economic opportunities. In the experiences I’ve had over the years, some of these challenges include:
- The triple burden of “reproductive, productive, and community management work” – a woman must take care of her family and children, cook, and clean; as well as contribute to the home business whether that is farming or supporting a family income generating activity; and engage in her community’s work and advancement. This work, while often recognized as “unproductive” because it does not often generate financial gains in itself, is crucial to ensuring a productive workforce and remains a challenge women must constantly overcome.
- Limited mobility – many women are often confined to their homes and do not have access to vehicles or transportation in order to move around freely. Even when the society allows for greater female mobility, women are not always trained on how to drive cars or it is culturally inappropriate for them to ride bicycles, perpetuating their inability to move for business or even reasons.
- Limited representation in leadership – women today still hold very few leadership positions whether they are in the public sector where “only 22 per cent of all national parliamentarians were female as of August 2015” (2) or the private sector where statistics vary showing women-led/owned businesses at between 18 – 40% of all business owners. Not only do policies and regulations contribute to this limitation but this lack of women leaders to look to as role models further perpetuates women not seeking these positions.
- Cultural and religious factors sometimes limit women’s rights and ability to engage – a number of cultural and religious barriers also exist in numerous contexts around the world which prohibit women from taking on new roles in society or participating as entrepreneurs or leaders.
- Limited access to education – access to education or the lack thereof is significant for women. Often in families that cannot afford to send all their children to school, the oldest son is selected to attend school thus reinforcing the roles that women normally take on in their families as unpaid care workers.
- Lack of rights to own or inherit land – the inability to own land or inherit land is a significant barrier for women throughout the world. While conducting analysis in Myanmar we learned that because women are rarely given the opportunity to have their name on the land title, they are prohibited from taking out loans even from some MFIs. This then keeps them from being able to purchase larger quantities of supplies or equipment that could greatly improve their business and yields.
- Violence against women – violence against women remains a significant barrier for women even today. It occurs across all countries, in every society, and at every income level around the world. Women can face multiple forms of discrimination and are at an increased risk of experiencing violence. Moreover, in fragile or conflict-affected situations women are often at an increased risk of violence, particularly in situations where sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. This exposure to violence along with the power imbalances that exist between women and men and the stigma attached to being a victim of violence often prevents women from feeling they can speak out against these situations. In addition, the fear of experiencing this violence further demobilizes women and keeps them from leaving their homes to engage in economic or other activities.
As I continue to work to promote gender equality and identify as well as support women to become stronger economic actors in their communities, one thing is true women are everywhere! However, while we may work to show that gender equality encourages economic development and advancement as this has been proven time and time again, but economic development and advancement may not always contribute to greater gender equality – and it is this challenge that we must seek to overcome.
1. Jones, L. “Mainstreaming Women’s Economic Empowerment in Market-Systems Development, Practitioner Guidelines,” Coffey International Development, April 2013, p.
2. See more at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-and-figures#sthash.sL2on3Vs.dpuf