The New “Women’s Work”: Toward More Equal Producer Organisations

On the island of Savai’i in the Pacific nation of Samoa, Perise is a respected leader of a coconut producers association – but she defied the odds to get there.

The first meeting Perise attended at the Savai’i Coconut Farmers’ Association (SCFA) she went in place of her husband, their household’s registered member. By chance, it so happened the members were electing the board and executive team. Three women, including Perise, were at the AGM when it came time to elect a secretary, a role dismissed by the men as “women’s work”. They assumed one of the women would take the job, so Perise did.

Perise is a dedicated mother who lives with her husband and family on the quieter of Samoa’s two main islands, Savai’i, where coconuts, taro and tourism are the main sources of income.

With such a reliance on agriculture, producer organisations are a really important way for farmers to increase the money they are paid and get support for planning for their futures. The problem is that men are usually the members of the association, and the members are the ones who make the decisions and get paid.

With her accidental involvement in the SCFA she is nothing like the stereotypical image of a workplace agitator, but her determination changed the very make up of the SCFA. Perise soon became the central pillar of the organisation. She was the person every farmer and business partner turned to, and the cooperative’s contact point for Fairtrade. She knew the details of everything that was going on with buyers and traders, the status of every farm and farmer, and – most importantly – how to get things done.

Perise’s willingness to take on the “women’s work” of the SCFA gave her the chance to sneak into a role that on paper some men wouldn’t have considered her capable of doing. But this isn’t just about women – Perise is the first to recognise the importance of her husband’s support and encouragement!

It’s a change Fairtrade wants to see wherever we work, so gender equality is one of the first principles of our programming. It should seem like an obvious thing to do, but in some of the countries where Fairtrade works equal rights for women are a completely new concept. So we make sure members of Fairtrade producer organisations can’t discriminate because of gender or marital status, or bring in discriminatory laws. They can’t force prospective workers to take a pregnancy test, and sexually intimidating, abusive or exploitative behaviour is not tolerated. If a producer organisation doesn’t support equality, it cannot be Fairtrade certified.

With Perise at the helm, Samoan women are being taught about their agency and rights through SCFA gender equality training. The number of women in the association has grown sixfold under Perise’s leadership, and there are now 36 female members out of 122. Women are using their voices to raise issues in meetings and their votes are worth as much as those of the men sitting next to them. But it hasn’t always been easy. Perise had to overcome some pretty deeply entrenched social and cultural barriers to become a business leader and key decision maker. There were times when groups of men didn’t think she was worth listening to or respecting. There were times when men refused to speak to her. Nevertheless, she persisted.

The fight isn’t done yet. Perise knows that she and other women will continue to face challenges as they sign up as members, and speak up in meetings, but she is committed to continuing the fight. “The women in the association, we need to have the courage to carry on.”

Now their courage is something we’re pretty proud of.

International Women’s Day

This IWD at Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand, we are sharing stories of incredible women breaking generations-long glass ceilings in a #PressforProgress. Perise has had a profound impact on changing perceptions around gender in her community. For young women, she represents opportunity in a world where 60-80% of food is produced by women. Today, we celebrate women like Perise, and ask you to press forward and progress gender equality with your friends, colleagues, and communities.

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