Real-life experiences for understanding women’s economic empowerment

My name is Elvira Laurien and in September, I was given the opportunity together with six other master students at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) to participate in the Nordic Africa Days 2016 organized by the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. The theme of the conference was Gender and change, a theme which permeated not only the panel discussions and keynote speeches but also the overall feeling during the two conference days. It was a great experience to partake in an event with so many interesting sub-topics, and although all panel discussions that I was fortunate to be able to attend were very interesting, one on gender relations and women’s economic empowerment was a personal favorite.

The theme of the panel was Exploring gender relations and rural women’s livelihoods in times of change: What’s beyond the focus on “women’s economic empowerment”? The argument was made that it is necessary to develop new tools to understand the interactions of households, gender relations and economic activities. UN Women writes that “Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth”. But is it really that simple? The presentations by Karolin Andersson and Andrea Petitt gave the audience an insight into the realities of women’s economic empowerment in Tanzania and Botswana respectively.

Tanzanian landscape. Photo credit: Karolin Andersson.

Karolin Andersson presented the paper Gender dynamics in cassava leaves value chains—The case of Tanzania, which focused on the impact of gender on the structure and dynamics of the Tanzanian cassava leaves value chain. Cassava leaves is a leafy vegetable which is gaining increased interest, and it is also a crop which is often harvested and sold by women. It is therefore interesting from a women’s economic empowerment perspective. Through looking at the cassava leaves value chain with a “gender lens”, Andersson found that although women were found to be the main participants of the cassava leaves value chain as well as participating on all levels of the chain, the men who did participate seemed to earn higher incomes due to selling larger quantities of cassava leaves than their women counterparts, or by having a more commercial orientation of the production and/or selling of the leaves than their women counterparts. Would investments in women’s participation in the cassava leaves value chain really lead to “inclusive economic growth”, then? It seems obvious that in this case the question should be posed differently. Andersson’s presentation made it evident that what is needed when it comes to the cassava leaves value chain in Tanzania is investments that enable women’s access to the more profitable functions of the value chain and to understand the implication of gender on the cassava leaves value chain in general, since women already do participate to a great extent. What seems to be crucial is sensitivity to the many obstacles that are hindering economically equal participation, as well as innovative solutions to how women who for various reasons cannot participate in stages of the value chain that are situated further away from the household farm can be empowered through more profitable cassava leaves production and selling strategies.

Women with her cattle in Ethiopia. Photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Andrea Petitt’s presentation offered the audience an example of how our image of women’s participation in economic activities might not always mirror what is happening “on the ground”. Examining women’s participation in and control of cattle rearing in Botswana, the paper Women’s cattle ownership in Botswana. Rebranding gender relations? showed that women’s share in cattle production in Botswana is greater than what has been thought and that it plays a major role in the economic empowerment of women. Not only do women have the knowledge needed about their cattle, but many also have connections with the European Union cattle market, enabling them to be part of a global economic market. What struck me as most interesting with Petitt’s presentation was how we need to constantly question what we think we know about women’s participation in local as well as global economies. We need to acknowledge the role women (can) play in markets, as well as the great knowledge that women have about their economic activities.

The panel gave me insights into the realities of women’s economic empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa that may be useful to me in many ways. It made me even more convinced about the importance of looking at real-life examples of women participating in local, national, and global economies, as well as the importance of constantly questioning what we think we know about how to work for gender equality and women’s empowerment, especially in low-income countries.

I want to put forward a big thank you to SIANI for the opportunity to attend the Nordic Africa Days 2016. It was both a humbling experience in the best of ways, as well as a great opportunity to speak to, and learn from, knowledgeable scholars with a Sub-Saharan Africa research focus. Not only did I gain new perspectives on important issues, but to my surprise, I also met a former teacher from the University of Amsterdam. I think that this is the essence of the Nordic Africa Days: to learn more about the issues that interest you, as well as (re)connecting with other persons interested in Sub-Saharan Africa in different scholarly fields. I am already looking forward to attending the Nordic Africa Days 2018, and as I by then (hopefully) will be newly graduated from the Master’s program in Rural development and natural resource management at SLU, who knows; maybe you will even be able to come and listen to me presenting my master’s thesis at one of the panels. 

Elvira Laurien is a MSc student at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). 

You can read more about the Nordic Africa Days 2016 on our website