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Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Fair Trade: Case Studies from India and Nepal
01 October 2012

By Elaine Jones1

“I started knowing nothing and today whatever I am, whatever work I do is because of the enormous help and support I received on the way” - Alpana, Artisans Association, Kolkata, West Bengal

This article gives a summary of experiences from India and Nepal from an action research project on producer organizations of working poor women and their engagement in Fair Trade markets.  Members of Fair Trade Forum India and Fair Trade Group Nepal participated in a global project on Women’s Economic Empowerment2 coordinated by WIEGO, (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs through its call to action under Millennium Development Goal 3: Promote Gender Equity and Empower Women. 

Women Producers and the Benefits of Trade
For self-employed women producers in the global South, engaging in trade can offer vital opportunities to secure a better future for themselves and their families. It can also strengthen women’s position in society, giving them the resources, skills and confidence to challenge discriminatory practices and take on new roles in their households and communities.

Unfortunately, many women are not able to access these opportunities because a combination of poverty and gender inequality means they have no money to invest in raw materials, they lack essential assets such as land or equipment, and/or they have no connection to buyers. Localized gender-based norms, attitudes and practices may limit women’s freedom of movement outside the home, both in terms of their burden of reproductive work and their presence in mixed sex spaces; they also influence women’s involvement in different types of economic activities – these can all be major obstacles to women’s participation in trade. For others trade is a disempowering experience, as women in the informal economy are vulnerable to exploitative trading practices and their bargaining position with buyers is typically weak.

 For others, trade is a disempowering experience, as women in the informal economy are
 vulnerable to exploitative trading practices and their bargaining position with buyers is
 typically weak.   
                                                                                                        Photo: Carol Wills

Seeking Alternatives: Collective Enterprise and Fair Trade
Many women (and men) producers have sought to overcome these and other challenges by forming collective enterprises. These enterprises come in a variety of forms, including producer cooperatives, artisan associations, networks of home-based workers, and informal community-based groups.  Through working jointly to produce and market their goods, as well as to access inputs, credits, services and information, they can benefit from economies of scale as well as increased bargaining power.

Case Studies from India and Nepal:  Members of FTF-I, involved in the project were the Artisans Association (AA), in West Bengal, SABALA in Karnataka and Sadhna in Udaipur, Rajasthan.  In Nepal two FTG Nepal member organizations participated in the WIEGO project:  The Association for Craft Producers (ACP) in Kathmandu and Women Skill Development Organization (WSDO) in Pokhara both of whom also target women producers to link them with Fair Trade markets.

The research took place at a number of levels and involved a variety of methods. At the grassroots level, personal testimonies were gathered from women producers by local facilitators, capturing their life histories and how they came to be part of their groups and what difference this had made to their lives. Focus groups were also held with community-level groups to jointly discuss how groups were formed and managed, how they related to the market, what benefits were derived from group membership and from Fair Trade, and where key challenges lay.  At the level of the Fair Trade organizations and networks, an analysis of the broader context was undertaken to better understand the links between the macro-economic environment and the micro level at which groups operate, with a focus on identifying structural barriers to trade and women’s economic empowerment.  The information was then synthesized into Country Case Study Reports. In addition, a photo journal was produced for each country to capture the lived realities of women producers and their life stories. Documentary films were also made in India, Nepal, allowing women to speak on camera and tell their own stories.3

The Benefits of Fair Trade

Stories of Change at Individual and Household Levels
A common finding across the case studies was that the collective enterprises presented women with rare opportunities for earning their own income, in contexts where women face numerous restrictions in doing so (e.g. lack of productive resources such as land and capital, low levels of formal education, heavy burdens of unpaid work in the household, social limitations on their participation in public spaces).   This was particularly important in India and Nepal, where many of the enterprises involved women who were single mothers (often following abuse or rejection by husbands and in-laws, or after being married at a very young age) and who lacked support from their own families.  In a context where this carries considerable social stigma, these women reported being given a unique opportunity and a safe place to establish themselves and had become “skilled, capable craftswomen able to engage positively with markets.”4

Being able to provide for themselves and their children had in turn led to noticeable improvements in women’s confidence and self-esteem.

Surya is separated from her husband and has been a sole provider for her 2 children and herself for the last 13 years. Surya has a sense of contentment when she looks back and recalls that working with WSDO has enabled her to raise her daughters, both of them now married. She now has a saving account in a local bank and is also extremely proud that the gold necklace and ear-rings she wears are made from her own income. (From the personal testimony of Surya Pandit, Banjhapatan sub-group, WSDO, Nepal5)

More generally, where production was home-based this allowed women to undertake paid work while also fulfilling their family responsibilities.  An important outcome for many married women was that their contribution to household income had led to changes in their husband’s attitudes towards them and given them more influence over decision-making within the household and community (although men still tend to have ultimate authority).6  In some cases husbands were reportedly helping more with domestic chores, freeing up women’s time for productive work.

After working with Sabala for 12 years, Sushila has become more efficient with her time and resources. She has built a bigger house now and bought more land and she has changed her husband’s mind too. Initially her husband was reluctant to allow her to work elsewhere. He believed that a women’s place was at home, and thus the only work that she should be allowed to do is in the house. However when he saw the amount of money that was coming in for them to make a new house, he allowed her to work. (From the personal testimony of Sushila Shivaji Rathod, SABALA, India7)

Benefits Associated with Being Part of a Group
A key benefit was being able to share ideas and experiences and learn from each other, especially in relation to production skills and techniques.  Enhanced access to markets is a key benefit of group membership for most women producers, although some of the groups have struggled to get regular orders and many have experienced a drop-off in sales in recent years.   By working together they are able to achieve economies of scale in buying raw materials, solve production problems, develop their skills and handle larger orders, all of which make them more attractive to buyers.  Being part of a group can also give women producers greater bargaining power and understanding of market information, which helps them to make better decisions about who to sell their goods to, at what price and when.  For example, representatives from the groups which are associated with the WSDO in Nepal decide jointly with management the piece rates for individual products. Likewise, groups associated with the Artisans Association in India set their own prices, with support from the Association in how to undertake costing and pricing.

 Being able to provide for themselves and their children 
 had in turn led to noticeable improvements in women’s
 confidence and self-esteem.               Photo: Carol Wills

Another important benefit women spoke about is access to training and/or extension services most often from the Fair Trade Organizations (FTOs) they are linked to, or Fair Trade buyers further up the chain, but also from government bodies and development agencies which work with groups to deliver services.  Women have been given training in a range of areas, from production skills, book-keeping and marketing, to money management, literacy and preventative health.  Women from several groups talked about becoming better informed, educated and more confident and aware of their rights as a result of this capacity building. 

Many women also access inputs through their groups.  Sub-groups of the collective enterprises typically receive inputs via their ‘parent’ enterprises (such as SABALA and Sadhna in India), although they may also purchase inputs directly (e.g. Kologhat Socio-Economic Welfare Society, member of the Artisans Association, India). 

The day we visited women of Rithepani group, they had come together to meet to discuss about renting a place where they will stock the cotton thread and distribute the thread to women from there.  The women were happy and excited that they no longer will have to travel to nearby town Pokhara to get their cotton... It saves time and money. (Extract from the Photo Journal by Fair Trade Group Nepal8)

Access to financial services is another important benefit associated with many of the collective enterprises. For example the WSDO in Nepal has its own cooperative savings and credit program through which all members can take out loans at a nominal interest rate or channel a portion of the payments they receive into a savings account.  SABALA in India has set up a cooperative bank which is run “by women for women” – it has around 7,000 active members and 25,000 clients, with total capital of approximately US $4.5 million.9

In addition to these (mainly) economic benefits, various social benefits from group membership were reported.  Solidarity and a source of support in times of difficulty were mentioned in all seven countries in the research project, with women often helping each other to cover emergency expenses or to access loans.  For women who are marginalized in their communities (e.g. for being separated from husbands or disabled), having a group of people with whom they can voice their opinions and concerns helps in overcoming their isolation and enhancing their access to social protection.

 They see Fair Trade as having the potential to lift millions
 of women informal workers out of poverty and to bring
 about gender equality in society, but recognize that in
 order to convince policy-makers, rigorous research
 evidence is needed.                           Photo: Carol Wills

Finally, improvements in women’s self-confidence and self-esteem was perhaps the most widely reported benefit associated with group membership, derived in part from women’s economic achievements but also from having experiences of participating in group meetings, travelling to markets to source inputs, and attending workshops and exhibitions – sometimes overseas.  Some women have taken on leadership roles in their groups as chairs, secretaries or treasurers, while others have developed the confidence to participate in decision-making in their groups and in various other ways in their communities.  For women who had often never left their villages before, these experiences served to open up their horizons and to strengthen their belief in their own abilities.

In the beginning, they were so unused to the city, that even the idea of a taxi was new to them. As they started interacting with Self Help, their horizons expanded... Dipali started travelling to Benaras, Bagalpur and Andhra Pradesh to buy fabrics.  She recalls an incident when she went all the way to Benaras to return some defective fabric that a trader had sent them, without knowing anything about the place. It took a lot of courage to step into the unknown this way. (From the personal testimony of Dipali Pramanik, Kologhat Socio-Economic Welfare Society, Artisans Association, India10)

Benefits associated with participating in Fair Trade Markets and Networks
Many of the group benefits mentioned above are linked in some way to participation in Fair Trade markets.  Fair Trade intermediary organizations one step up the supply chain which provide women with capacity building support in the form of seminars and workshops on, for example, quality control, new product development, and costing and pricing.  The FTOs also help with training on governance issues, group organization, how to run a business and financial management – often with the support of their Fair Trade buyers in the Global North.  Groups are also provided with information on export market requirements.  Above all these intermediaries have given women producers access to Fair Trade and other export markets which usually give a better price for their products. 

Importantly, FTOs have given opportunities to extremely vulnerable women who would otherwise struggle to find employment or make a living.  In India and Nepal women working with Fair Trade craft associations gain access to various social security provisions as well as decent prices, such as pension funds, medical insurance and maternity payments.  As a member of the ACP in Nepal stated, when asked why group members did not take orders from other buyers:

Because of the benefits. Not only we get more on direct cash payment for each meter, a part of the wage also gets deposited in the gratuity fund at ACP. We are also entitled to medical allowances which makes up to about 60-65 per cent of our wages. (Unnamed ACP member, Nepal11)

Building an Agenda for Change
Across all countries participants called for governments to give more recognition and consideration to women informal workers and the informal economy in policy-making, planning and budgeting. Women informal workers should not be dismissed as unskilled workers making low quality goods – they are a force of people making a major contribution to each country’s economy who, with targeted investment and training, would contribute even more. 

To view the informal sector from a welfare perspective alone is unjust to the informal sector. More rights-based policies and interventions are essential. The policies should encourage Fair Trade, community-led economic initiatives and [the] informal economy as these sectors contribute substantially to the economic development of the country and are directly related to self-empowerment of people socially, economically and culturally. (Fair Trade Group Nepal12)

Policy Recommendations for the Fair Trade Movement
Many of the policy recommendations identified in the country case study reports and during the final sharing and learning Mombasa Workshop in 2011 related to the Fair Trade networks (and FTO’s) own practices. There were three streams to these recommendations: the first related to building national awareness of Fair Trade at all levels, from the grassroots through to governments and consumers. The second stream related to the need (and opportunity) for the national Fair Trade networks to become stronger platforms for advocacy in favor of women and informal workers.  For example, Fair Trade Group Nepal felt that it should be taking a lead in policy dialogues related to informal producers, building strategic alliances with other like-minded organizations and networks and advocating for the ratification of ILO Convention 177 (labor rights for home-based workers). Similarly, Fair Trade Forum - India felt it was important to evolve a Policy Framework that is “big” in scale and they proposed the creation of “a Forum of stakeholders for mobilizing the critical mass, to develop innovative ideas and strategies, research and advocacy including legal and media advocacy”.13 They see Fair Trade as having the potential to lift millions of women informal workers out of poverty and to bring about gender equality in society, but recognize that in order to convince policy-makers, rigorous research evidence is needed.

Fair Trade may offer that alternative paradigm for women’s empowerment with a strong emphasis on fairness in terms of work for women, wages and attributing dignity to their work.... In Fair Trade we should be giving emphasis to a philosophy that handwork enables the human spirit to survive, serves to balance ecology and helps the economy use its resources in a manner that will generate sustainable livelihoods... There is a need to find a smart way to tell the story both to policy makers and the masses in general. (Fair Trade Forum - India14)

Finally, a consensus was formed at Mombasa around the need to pay more attention to gender and women’s economic empowerment in Fair Trade.  Although women have long been at the heart of Fair Trade, especially in the WFTO given the high numbers of women involved in the production of handicrafts and the fact that many FTOs have specifically targeted women producers, up to now there has been no explicit gender policy or programme of activities related to gender. Furthermore, although Fair Trade advocacy talks about increasing income for disadvantaged, poor women producers, the image and discourse tends to be of a down-trodden, marginalized woman. This is often disempowering and doesn’t recognize women as workers with rights. As a result the participants at the Mombasa Workshop felt that specific gender policies need to be introduced which include affirmative action to achieve greater representation of women in governance and to highlight the importance of women’s economic empowerment in Fair Trade. They identified specific policy asks for women’s economic empowerment and subsequently worked with their regional Fair Trade networks (COFTA and WFTO Asia) to formulate resolutions calling for the establishment of a working group on gender and women’s economic empowerment with the WFTO; these resolutions were then approved at WFTO’s AGM on 26 May 2011.

Subsequent to the WFTO AGM, a Gender Working Group has been convened by the WFTO Board on which there is representation from India and Nepal.

1  Elaine Jones is an Associate Member of WFTO.  She is the Director of the Global Trade Programme of Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing, WIEGO The full report authored by Elaine Jones, Sally Smith and Carol Wills can be found at

2 For WIEGO, empowerment refers to the process of change that gives working poor women – as individual workers and as members of worker organizations – the ability to gain access to the resources they need while also gaining the ability to influence the wider policy, regulatory and institutional environment that shapes their livelihoods and lives. WIEGO aims to support women’s economic empowerment with programmes and activities which increase the voice of working poor women through strengthening their member-based organizations, increase their visibility through deepening the research evidence on women the informal economy, and increase their validity through joint advocacy to promote their legal recognition, protection and promotion as economic actors who contribute to the economy. Source: Women’s Economic Empowerment: WIEGO Position and Approach, available at:

3 These are available for download at

4 Source: Fair-Trade Forum – India presentation at Mombasa Workshop, May 2011

5 Source: Photo Journal prepared by the Fair Trade Group Nepal, 2011

6 In India women also reported gaining respect from their in-laws, which is important in the India context where women are “given” to their husband upon marriage and are often highly dependent on their husband’s families. 

7 Source: Photo Journal prepared by Fair-Trade Forum – India, 2011.

8 Source: Fair Trade Group Nepal. 2011. Fair Trade: Keeps Informal Sector Producers Going Amidst Challenges of Globalization. FTGN: Kathmandu.

9 See:

10 Source: Photo Journal prepared by Fair-Trade Forum – India, 2011

11 Source: Photo Journal prepared by Fair Trade Group Nepal, 2011

12 Source: Chitrakar, S. 2011. Fair Trade Group Nepal:  A Case Study of Fair Trade Producers. Fair Trade Group Nepal: Kathmandu. p. 26

13 Source:  Fair Trade Forum – India. 2011. Economic Empowerment of Women in the Informal Economy in India:  A Contextual Analysis Report.  FTF-I: India. p. 40

14 Ibid.

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