In honour of International Women’s Day 2023, Trade Finance Global hosted a dinner event with 30 influential female leaders in the trade, treasury and payments industries. 

Lynette Thorstensen, Chair of the Board, Fairtrade International, delivered a keynote speech to the dinner attendees, highlighting gender equity success stories while pointing out the need for further growth.

As the chair of the board for Fairtrade International, Lynette has first-hand experience with initiatives that help lift people out of poverty and increase gender equity across the globe. She reminded us that finger-pointing is useless, as we can all do more to increase female empowerment. 

“Another way to think about inequity versus inequality is that most inequities are avoidable. The Least Developed Countries should not be expected to maintain unequal status forever. It is, of course, impossible to achieve total equality across the globe but dealing with inequities removes avoidable barriers. 

One of these in a trade context is the so-called pink tariff which continues to mean that imported women’s clothing, particularly in the USA carries higher tariffs than equivalent men’s clothing, and so women consumers bear a higher cost burden. If you want to know more about this, I recommend Miranda Hatch’s excellent paper entitled: Is Trade Sexist? How “Pink” Tariff Policies’ Harmful Effects Can Be Curtailed Through Litigation and Legislation

And that’s just the consumer end –  let’s now look at the supply side; An Oxfam 2019 report found that 0% of Bangladeshi garment workers and 1% of Vietnamese garment workers earned a living wage. This prevents workers from saving money for a safety net while looking for alternative employment. 

Often, women start their daughters working in the factory as young as age ten to help feed their family because one wage is inadequate. Being trapped in this cycle causes women to be more susceptible to sexual abuse because they can’t risk the loss of income by reporting misconduct.

The main drivers of inequity remain poverty, exposure to violence, unemployment, low educational attainment, inadequate housing, lack of public transport and community deterioration. 

The United Nations Development Program has told us, again and again, that: One of the most effective strategies to improve women’s lives is to put money directly into the hands of women. 

The statistic is that for every one woman lifted out of poverty, she will bring seven other people over the poverty line alongside her. We at Fairtrade International recognise that women in developing countries don’t necessarily have knowledge or skills shortages; they primarily have a cash shortage.

Garment factories that offer a liveable wage and the flexibility to balance a personal life outside of work can go a long way in improving the status of women to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – especially SDG One – elimination of poverty in all its forms.”

To emphasise the message of equity and successful initiatives, Lynette told the story of Fairtrade coffee farmers in Peru.

Lynette said, “I wanted to leave you on an uplifting note with this wonderful story relating to all of this – as told to me by Bill Barrett, who is a Canadian member on our Board, a coffee roaster, and has a Fairtrade and organic café in Guelph, Canada.

And this is the story of Café Femenino in Peru:

The Cafe Femenino story begins with indigenous women growing coffee in the Andes of Northern Peru.

Co-operatives that participate in our system must meet the Fairtrade standards that ensure women are engaged in the organisation and participate in its governance. This means that women in remote mountainous regions are brought together by their co-ops, often for the first time. 

This gives them an opportunity to share their challenges and in the case of a group of indigenous women in the Andes of Northern Peru, create a remarkable initiative. They created their own coffee brand, Cafe Femenino.

Coffee farming is hard work, and often women do most of it, but they don’t always benefit financially. The men of the families typically collect payment at the coffee market. The money rarely makes it back into the household economy. Without their own economic power, women struggle to keep themselves and their children safe and well. 

Women in these mountainside communities were found to have a 70% risk of experiencing physical and sexual violence. Young women rarely made it past primary school, many becoming mothers in their teenage years.

These women had an idea. An innovative and entrepreneurial idea. Indigenous women from 60 communities became involved in a Fairtrade coffee co-operative. They shared the stories of their difficult lives. They decided that together they could change their lives by selling their coffee separately from the men. 

They get a higher price because of the Fairtrade standards, plus a premium to support community projects. Now, they no longer cook over open fires because they can afford energy-efficient stoves that keep the smoke from infecting their eyes and lungs. They nurture the local ecology by growing the coffee organically and have learned to grow more nutritious food.

The farmers govern and manage this project themselves. They’ve developed leadership skills so that they can participate in government and non-governmental organisations. 

They have built local infrastructure including roads, classrooms, warehouses and irrigation systems. Girls now go further in school, excelling, and even gaining higher degrees. 

Amazingly one of the daughters of a founder of Cafe Femenino not only made it through high school but has now attained a PhD. There has also been a significant decrease in violence against women.

It began with 8 women in 2004, now there are more than 700 women involved.

Their idea has flourished, bringing security to their families. The program has been so successful that it has been replicated in nine countries around the world. And, Bill tells me, the coffee these women produce is excellent. 

Their success is not only about helping their own families. When they learned that some women in North America also experience gender-based violence, they insisted that any coffee company roasting their coffee, the coffee exported all the way from Peru, that coffee company should take steps to support women in their own community.

So, here is an inspiring example of one the single most important steps to removing inequity – enabling women to become financially independent  – and that is true for all women, everywhere from New York to Bamako, London to Hanoi, Sydney to Lima.

I want to wish you all the very best in your own journeys as women leaders, and in embracing equity as women working in global trade.”