As the train leaves Oxford, my mind is going over the day’s events. Together with Oxfam, the Ethical Tea Partnership organised a workshop with a view to ‘gender mainstreaming’ the Malawi 2020 Roadmap.

The high profile gender experts we had invited were given the task of thinking through the possible opportunities for female empowerment this long-term sector-wide programme has to offer. Alongside this, they were asked to look at the potential negative consequences of the planned activities that may be well-intended but could create further problems for women. For example, if social norms around the ‘place of a woman in society’ prohibit her from taking on leadership roles, then it will be really important to try to address social norms amongst both men and women before encouraging women to participate in any leadership programme. If men are left out, an ‘empowered’ woman may find herself faced with a husband who turns to violence because he feels threatened by the shift in power dynamics in his household.

Women make up about 30% of Malawi’s 50,000-strong tea sector workforce. They mainly engage in plucking tea leaves, but some women also work in the factories, or do other field work. The overwhelming majority of these women are supervised by men. In combination with a lack of human resource (HR) policies and management systems that protect women’s rights, let alone encourage women to take on more senior roles, the door to abuse is left wide open. One important goal of our programme is to create the institutional and social environment in which it is highly unlikely for a woman to be asked for sexual favours because social norms will have shifted and because stronger policies and practices are functioning in the plantations that ensure women access their rights.

Gender Experts Providing Input into the Malawi 2020 Programme

Gender Experts Providing Input into the Malawi 2020 Programme

During the workshop, Prof. Stephanie Barrientos from the University of Manchester (and an expert in gender in global value chains), stressed the importance of ‘voice’ as a prerequisite to female empowerment. Women need to be able to use their voice through representation, e.g. as union reps. This is very pertinent for the smallholder sector in Malawi where approximately 75% of the farmers are actually women due to women inheriting the land in this part of Malawi. This however, has not translated into female farmers dominating the boards of the smallholder trusts. Women are involved, but the real leadership lies with men.

When aiming for gender equality we asked whether this should be ‘equality of opportunities’ or ‘equality of outcomes’? Is it enough to open up roles traditionally occupied by men, such as truck driving, to women, or should a woman be offered additional support so that she is actually in an equal position to a man to take that job?

Oxfam’s Senior Advisor on Women’s Economic Rights, Thalia Kidder, explained that equality of outcomes assumes a good understanding of all the factors in a Malawian woman’s life that may prevent her from taking on certain opportunities. She may spend 6 hours a day caring for her children and other relatives, walking for miles to a water point, fetching firewood, buying and preparing food, picking up the children from school, etc. She may only have 6 hours in the day left to devote to paid work - and given all her other tasks how productive will she actually be?

To be successful, programmes that want women to take up higher paid opportunities will need to integrate practical solutions such as offering smallholder training programmes close to the farm, at a time when women aren’t typically involved in other activities. Also, measures such as introducing fuel-efficient stoves, advocating that the local authority changes the location of the water pumps, and ensuring safe transport into work could help to create ‘true’ equal opportunities.

Oxfam’s WE-CARE programme looks at gender roles and the distribution of work (paid and unpaid) between men and women. They found that in the Philippines, for example, women do seven (!) times more care work than men, leaving them with the opportunity of 2.38 hours of paid work only. In Uganda, the picture is less bleak, but women still put in four times more care work than men (5 hours vs 1.25 hours for men) and women work nearly as many hours in paid work (5.65 for women and 6.52 for men). In every 24 hours, men have 3 hours more time for sleeping, bathing, eating, education, and religious and social activities.

We concluded that we need similar in-depth contextual analysis for Malawi as this will need to inform our further work on gender equality. Feeling very lucky that we will receive continued input from this group of motivated experts, my train pulls into Paddington Station. I am hungry and wonder what my husband has made for dinner…

This blog was written Wednesday 9 December 2015