Just as women from different African countries often experience the same biases and challenges, they could possibly share the same solutions too. That is why one-one-one learning sessions were one of the important moments when women from across the continent recently gathered in the Cape Winelands for Fairtrade’s International Women’s Day event.
The event, themed “Break the bias”, served as a platform for women to exchange their learnings and experiences, as well as to celebrate their achievements within their communities.
While women play an integral role in agriculture across the continent, they are often subjected to discrimination based on their gender. In a 2020 study on women in agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture in South Africa (Siza) found that women in agriculture are often impeded by patriarchal perceptions or bias, motherhood and childcare, and a lack of training and education, amongst other things.
Sandi Ndlovu, Fairtrade Africa’s regional communications officer, explains that women across the continent are breaking down these types of barriers every day. She explains that women within the Fairtrade Africa network are doing great work, but have not been receiving acknowledgment for that work.
“This event is really just to celebrate the women and to focus on breaking the bias. A lot of them are breaking the bias while they are operating in mainly male-dominated spaces. So the event is really just to celebrate them, to acknowledge them, and to say to them, ‘We see you’.”
Ndlovu also says that African women from different countries can teach each other and help each other work through some of these barriers. Part of the event was thus dedicated to a learning session, where women from different regions were paired up to discuss some of the issues they face and potential solutions to them.
“We also want to encourage cross learning between the different producers. Producers will table their commitments, then we will check… at the end of the year to see if they have implemented what they had committed to today.”
Do away with ‘glass ceiling’ analogies
The keynote speaker at the event was Sixolile Ngcobo, the provincial manager for the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE). She says that the work CGE overlaps with the Fairtrade standards on gender equality.
“In the Western Cape, we work with Fairtrade in terms of doing awareness programmes and helping with gender equality work on the different farms that are certified by them.
“In the past three years, we’ve had various outreaches where we speak to the broader communities around issues of women’s rights in the workplace. We’ve also spoken about gender policies that empower and promote transformation in terms of gender. It’s really a working relationship that we have with them.”
Ngcobo says that the discussion around women’s empowerment highlights the continuous struggle women face with being seen and heard and occupying leadership spaces. She explains that, when we discuss issues of gender, we need to change how we have the discussion.
“For a very long time, we’ve been told there’s a glass ceiling. And there will be comments on shattering the glass ceiling. But if you shatter glass, you are about to be injured?”
Ngcobo adds that women do not negotiate through violence but through agreement. That is why she believes the discussion should be changed from shattering the glass ceiling, to navigating the labyrinth of leadership.
“If you are in a maze, you are on the ground. You are able to connect with people like we are doing, and you are able to hear and learn what is new and what is working. You are able to compare what you are doing and say ‘maybe I can learn from this’.”
African women changing communities through agriculture
Elizabeth Julies, chairperson of the Fairtrade committee at the farm Bosman Adama in the Western Cape, says that, through the support of Fairtrade, they ensure that women on the farm come to the fore and take up leadership positions. Some of the issues the farm’s women are tackling are domestic violence, drug use, and poverty.
“We started with a lot of workshops where we empowered our women. One of those workshops was [about] a gardening project where we grow vegetables for women who do not always have access to food as well as for the creches on the farms. The garden also empowers women to earn money for their households.”
Julies encourages women to take control and to empower themselves. She says the time for women to stand back has passed.
“If we do not stand up, then we are not creating a good future for us and for our children.”
Representing the KDDPFF farmers’ association from Eswatini, Modesia Sikhadze says that there are many challenges women in agriculture face in the country. Women are not allowed to own land unless they buy land commercially. They also have limited access to equipment, funding and training.
With the help of Fairplay, Sikhadze says, their organisation now empowers women by buying the needed farming implements and providing discounted rates for farming inputs.
“We bought farming tractors and implements, not just for the farm but also for the community. We also [implemented] a policy to empower women to [practise] farming. Our policy is that each and every woman who is farming gets a 5% cash discount on our farming implements. We also give them credit, which they can pay back when they [harvest].”
Working in Mauritius, Vanessa Arokeum from Pont Bon Dieu CPCS explained that one of the problems in agriculture in her country is a lack of youth participation. Pont Bon Dieu means Bridge of Good, and Arokeum says the organisation attempts to show young Mauritians how broad the world of agriculture is.
“The agricultural sector in Mauritius is becoming old. Our main objective of the society this year is to encourage young people to join the sector. Our main product is sugarcane. We have used Fairtrade Premium to train the workers, [and] to assist them in [learning] proper ways to work.”
Other organisations represented at the event included Bosman Adama Wines, Journey’s End Vineyards, L’esperance CCS from Mauritius, and Van Loveren.
The crowning moment of the event was the prize-giving ceremony, where the international Break the Bias awards were announced. The ultimate honour went to the women employees of Van Loveren Wines, who won 10 000 euro. They were represented by Rhoda McNiel and Sune September.
McNeil was ecstatic about the award, and says she felt a bit speechless. “I don’t even know what to say. When they said our names, I said to myself, ‘Lord, thank you’. I am proud of what we brought back to Van Loveren.”
September says she was surprised in the moment, but extremely happy that they had won. “It was wonderful to win the Break the Bias [award] and certificate. It shows what women can do. There is no limit to what we as women can accomplish.”
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