Transformational change for women and their communities in Mali

Agriculture, Food & livelihoods, Gender, Methodology

Imogen Davies

We recently launched the findings from our three-year research project into Women’s Collective Action in agricultural markets in sub-Saharan Africa. Following blogs on reaching marginalised women in Ethiopia and making markets work for women smallholders in Tanzania, Learning and Communications Co-ordinator Imogen Davies explains how collective action has improved gender relations for women in Mali, our final focus country.

In Mali, the Women’s Collective Action (WCA) research project focused on shea butter in the Koutiala district in the south-east of the country. In contrast to our other research projects, which focused on the honey sector in Ethiopia and the vegetable sector in Tanzania, shea production
and processing in this area has always been female-dominated, while community involvement and collective action are an age-old tradition. With increasing international demand for high-quality shea products and recent government policies supporting women’s engagement in collective action groups, Koutiala proved to be fertile ground for more mature collective action groups to develop.

What is exciting about the findings from Mali is that they show that, under the right conditions, active participation in collective action groups can empower women smallholders. In some of the villages studied, women saw improvements in their decision-making power and influence within both the household and the community, contributing to lasting changes in gender relations.

Transformational change at the personal, household and community level

Ramatou Couloubaly with shea butter, MaliWhen I visited Bamako last October for a seminar on WCA research, I was struck by the enthusiasm of the two women co-operative members who had made the journey to the capital from their villages in Koutiala. They, and women in many of the collective action groups studied, told us that they felt a greater sense of independence and self-confidence, as well as improved leadership skills, as a result of
participating in their co-operatives. Our research showed that women members were significantly more empowered than non-members in terms of decision-making over agricultural incomes, use of credit and freedom of movement. We also found that WCA group members earned over 80 per cent more than women not in groups, translating to an increase in profit of around $20 per year. The leader of one group told us that “Today, every woman from the co-operative who is involved in shea butter production says that she derives significant revenues from it”. For the women I met in
Bamako, this increase in income meant that they were able to pay for clothes and school fees for their children.

Our Mali study showed that this sense of empowerment, along with women contributing more to household costs, improved marital relations for many women group members, who now had more say within the household. In several co-operatives, group members reported that communication and respect between husbands and wives had improved significantly, while joint decision-making was increasingly common. The male co-operative leader in one village explained to us that the men in the community now believe that “women should always be consulted on important decisions relating to the
survival and future of the family”.

The Shea Sector in Mali case study downloadIn the most mature groups, we found that these factors contributed to the transformation of gender relations at the community level as well. Women in these groups had a much higher social standing in their villages, with male community members and authorities regularly inviting
members of the WCA groups to consultations on community development. The women co-operative members at the seminar in Bamako really emphasised the positive effect of being involved in the groups in their villages, in terms of social cohesion, mobilisation of the women in the community, and the respect which women had gained from men. This improvement was reflected in the support given to the women’s co-operatives, where husbands, community authorities and men’s groups had encouraged their activities and provided them with infrastructure and resources. In one village, the chief had
supported women to such an extent that he was now known as ‘the Women’s Village Chief’.

What helped develop women’s collective action groups in Mali?

The development of more mature groups, which were able to bring about transformational change for women, was dependent on several factors:

  • Building on strong, female-dominated collective action groups. The longstanding involvement of women in both shea cultivation and women-only community groups in the area studied meant that they did not face barriers to their involvement in the production and marketing of shea, and experienced less resistance to their participation in collective action groups. The predominance of women-only groups also avoided gender inequities being replicated in group dynamics.
  • Benefiting from favourable government policies.Co-operative laws and government programmes in Mali improved the equitable allocation of inputs and benefits in groups, and supported the conversion of farmers’ organizations into co-operatives, which attracted more external support. The government has also worked nationally to improve the position of women farmers.
  • Utilising market opportunity. NGOs and government departments took advantage of increasing market interest in shea butter from the international cosmetic industry. They provided strategic, technical and financial support to improve production and marketing methods so that group members could produce a higher quality shea product and reach more distant markets.
  • Developing strong, accountable leadership.The most successful groups in Mali had dynamic leaders who had received extensive training and had the skills to mobilise members, establish strong external networks, and develop a long-term strategy for their groups. These groups also benefited from transparent internal governance and collective decision-making processes.
  • Engaging with men and community leaders to consolidate support.Support and encouragement from husbands and male community leaders proved vital to women’s active and sustained participation in collective action. Women were also largely dependent on these men for access to the shea trees on their land, as well as infrastructure for group activities.
  • Improving the sustainability of resources.To ensure that shea butter production is sustainable in the face of drought and that women can continue their engagement in the sector, NGOs have trained women in planting techniques and supported them to obtain land from village authorities.

Read more

Oxfam’s work on Women’s Collective Action

Download our research report on Women’s Collective Action in Agricultural Markets

Download the country case studies:

The vegetable sector in Tanzania
The shea sector in Mali
The honey sector in Ethiopia

Author: Imogen Davies
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.