How can you effectively integrate women into value chains? With this question in mind, two representatives from the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), an international development association based in Canada, shared their experiences with women’s economic development projects.
The benefits of empowering and integrating women into the economy are widely known. But what exactly must be done to incorporate women into value chains, especially in parts of the world where women face cultural barriers to participating in their economies?
MEDA explained that the key to tackling this problem is understanding that women are actually active participants in most value chains, but they’re just “hidden.” For instance, the dairy industry in Pakistan is often considered to be male-dominated, but in fact women are heavily involved in management activities such as feeding, watering, and housing. So identifying where women are engaged in the value chains is crucial.
After locating where exactly women participate most in a value chain, MEDA uses their “sales-agent” approach to increase the number of women into the market systems. They look for women who have more mobility (i.e.: have the independence to attend training sessions) and who possess entrepreneurial spirits. Once these self-selected women receive training on business skills, such as marketing or enhancing financial management, they then share their knowledge with the rest of their female colleagues/other producers. Thus, the sales-agent ultimately becomes the link who understands the demands of the market and what the producers can provide to fulfill that demand.
Through the years as MEDA helped increase women’s participation in local economies, their projects produced social benefits as well. They gradually changed social behaviors in communities, such as women’s ability to make decisions in households (i.e. nutrition, school enrollment for children) and women’s participation in district and provincial political councils. Ultimately these projects helped increase the overall well-being of women and children at a local scale.
To date, MEDA has implemented several women’s economic development programs in rural Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Ghana. But it wasn’t easy for them to fulfill their goals immediately. As they progressed with their programs, they learned a few important lessons: the necessity of engaging men in the communities to encourage more women’s participation (often this meant speaking with community leaders such as Imams and tribal leaders), and the merit of involving local partners who understand the local culture and governance structures.
As more development organizations and agencies consider facilitating value-chain-based projects to integrate women into markets, MEDA emphasized the importance of building projects specifically targeting women. Because of cultural constraints, especially in rural areas of developing economies, value-chain projects must be women-specific and address the challenges they face to get results, not just the general challenges faced by the community at large.