'Invisible women' in global value chains: Four key questions

by 12th Nov 2015
Hana Eliyas, a smallholder farmer in Ethiopia participating in the GRAD programme which aims to move food-insecure households towards value chain participation. Hana Eliyas, a smallholder farmer in Ethiopia participating in the GRAD programme which aims to move food-insecure households towards value chain participation.

Megan Gaventa writes: As I took part in CARE’s recent roundtable discussion, ‘Invisible Women in Global Value Chains: A Missed Opportunity?’, I couldn’t help but feel that the event was timely. Not just because it was part of CARE’s 70th anniversary celebrations. The excitement surrounding the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals – and their standalone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment – was still fresh in the mind. Recent weeks had also brought the under-representation of women in business, politics and other spheres into the spotlight, as Elle’s photoshopped images of world leaders reminded us how far there is to go.

CARE’s roundtable discussion brought together experts from NGOs, universities and business to consider the role of women in global value chains. Since the pioneering work of feminist economists such as Ester Boserup in the 1970s, it has been widely accepted that women play vital roles in the world’s economies. Yet even today, their contributions to value chains, from tea to t-shirts, are often overlooked and undervalued. CARE’s discussion provided a chance for participants to share lessons, challenges and opportunities on increasing the participation and visibility of women in value chains.

Here, I reflect on four key questions raised in the discussions, sharing some of the contributions made, and adding some thoughts of my own.

Why should women be visible in global value chains?

Probably the easiest question to answer. Participants agreed there are now clear justifications for recognising, valuing and promoting the role of women in value chains, with benefits for business, value chain sustainability, poverty reduction, and the achievement of development goals.

Such arguments play an important role in attracting and maintaining global attention on women’s economic empowerment. I like to supplement them by focusing on the benefits of empowerment processes for women themselves – reminding us that it’s what works for women that is the most important.

What does it mean to make women visible in value chains?

This one’s trickier. While women’s economic activities are increasingly recognised and encouraged, other aspects of their lives remain ‘invisible’. Globally, for example, women continue to carry out on average between three and six hours of unpaid care work each day, work that continues to be seen as of lesser importance than paid work.

Being ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’, participants in the roundtable suggested, is not a simple set of opposites. Instead, women – in value chains, business and development – can be both visible and invisible at the same time. A challenge for those working on women’s empowerment is to find ways to recognise women in the numerous roles they hold: as workers, mothers, sisters, daughters, carers, friends, leaders and many more. After all, as a recent CARE report Adding value to value chains emphasises, it is interventions that support women holistically, considering their economic, social and other lives, that are the most effective.

Which women are we talking about?

As participants shared their stories, it became clear that context is key. In different places, women will face different challenges and opportunities in their access to and participation in value chains. Thinking about context helps us to remember this, and tailor our support accordingly.

Remembering context also helps us to move beyond discussions of ‘women’ as one group. As we know, women’s lives – and gender inequalities – are always influenced by other forms of relations, including class, caste and ethnic differences. Understanding how these play out in particular contexts is undoubtedly challenging, but also hugely important. Identifying the locations of women in their supply chains, as the companies taking part in the CARE roundtable discussion have done, is a vital first step in developing contextualised responses.

With these thoughts in mind, the obvious concluding question is:

How can the participation and visibility of women in value chains be increased?

Participants agreed that although much progress has been made, there is still a long way to go to achieve widespread, sustainable and truly transformative change. Commitment to learning and partnership – as exemplified in the discussion – is a good way to continue the work.

Megan Gaventa is a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Her research focuses on women’s empowerment in international development. Previously, she spent five years working with NGOs in the UK, Bangladesh and India. She holds an MA in Social Anthropology of International Development from SOAS and a BSc in Sociology from the London School of Economics. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.