Gender mainstreaming in Malawi’s tea sector

Gender, Private sector

Together with Oxfam, the Ethical Tea Partnership recently organised a workshop looking at gender mainstreaming in Malawi’s tea industry as part of Malawi 2020, a scheme to improve living standards for Malawi’s tea workers. Here Heleen Bulckens, Programme Manager at the Ethical Tea Partnership, explains what they learnt.

Women make up about 30% of Malawi’s 50,000-strong tea sector workforce. They mainly engage in plucking tea leaves, but some also work in the factories, or do other field work. The overwhelming majority of these women are supervised by men. The door to abuse is left wide open because of a combination of lack of human resource policies, and management systems that fail to protect women’s rights, let alone encourage women to take on more senior roles. 

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 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, ensuring that women can access their rights. 
We invited several high profile gender experts to think through the possible opportunities for female empowerment which the Malawi 2020 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 is
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.
During the workshop, Prof. Stephanie Barrientos from the University of Manchester (and an expert on 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’?

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 six 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 six 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 truly 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 (five 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 three 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.

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Photo: Tea picking in Mulanje, Southern Malawi. Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Author: Heleen Bulckens
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.