Over the past several years fair trade has become synonymous with empowering women in developing countries. If you have ever read Half the Sky (which you should if you haven't), you understand how giving women the ability to empower themselves is one of the best ways to help whole societies out of poverty. There is nothing I would rather get behind! But I have also realized after being in this industry for several years, we often overlook the crucial role men play in the fair trade industry and in the empowerment of women.
A few years ago I went to visit the group we work with in Haiti. Even though I had been there many times, I had always gone to visit this group with a translator or at least another person who could speak more than ten words of creole. I arrived at the airport, was greeted by a few members of the family I have stayed with before, and we embarked on the five hour drive to the middle of the Plateau. We were driving a VERY beat up Ford truck...you could see the dirt of the road through the floor board. I was sitting in the middle seat with the driver, the father of this family, and a couple other men who had used this opportunity to get a ride to their village. About an hour into the drive our car died. It was about 90 plus degrees that day (and I have not yet learned how to rebuild car engines), so I waited in the middle seat as they all got out of the truck. They popped the hood and each took turns putting their head in the engine and looking concerned. After about ten minutes of this Illiovene got back in the car, looked at me and said, "We have prwoblem." I laughed, because what else was I going to do, and got out my creole dictionary. Evidently something was wrong with the engine I deduced after ten minutes of him pointing to words in the dictionary. Phone calls were made, more poking at the engine happened, I think I took a nap...then about two hours later another car showed up and we finally started driving again.
Somehow this drive that is supposed to take five hours ended up taking about ten. As we were driving at midnight through dirt and hilly roads during monsoon rains...you literally could not see the road...I started thinking. I realized these people that I barely knew would do everything in their power to get me to their village safely. Why? Well they believe in keeping people safe and I truly think they would do anything to bring more opportunities to the people of their village - their wives, brothers, mothers, daughters.
I tell this story just to say there is a whole lot of behind the scenes things men do to help empower their counterparts in the fair trade industry then most of us realize. In a lot of remote villages the truth is most of the people who have cell phones, internet access, or the ability to translate are men. We are always working to empower women to do these things themselves, but the men in the community always graciously give their time to help. In Bolivia, Jose helps us communicate with our seamstresses there by passing along and translating emails for them. He gets absolutely nothing from doing this just wants to give these women more opportunities. A photographer, who we really could not afford, takes pictures because it helps us get more orders which gives women in developing countries more work. I have been in more situations like the above (than I probably should) and somehow have gotten to these remote/sometimes not very safe places with the help of leaders from communities. People like Kiran and his family who have run a fair trade organization in Nepal for decades. Why? He believes strongly in the impact his work has on their community. Like his father before him, he runs a program that gives free weaving and knitting classes to women so they are then able to work from their homes while caring for their children. They are one of the pioneers in the fair trade industry and are still doing it because over the past four decades have seen the impact their work is making on their whole community.
I think empowering women is important! But I also think sometimes promoting work for men in developing countries is just as important. I think we have to teach women how to sustainably make an income for themselves, but I think it is important to remember a lot of the time this is possible because of men who have advocated for them. I will always be a supporter of using fair trade to empower women, but I also think it is important to see the whole picture.
I have been considering these things this year as men have gotten a bad rap - which frankly was mostly deserved, but it is easy to also dismiss the good. So, I am using Father's Day as an excuse to thank all the men who have a hand in giving women in developing countries a more sustainable income. You would think they would feel threatened by helping empower women, but a lot of the time it is the complete opposite. Most of them don't even want recognition - they do these small things because they are proponents for those who have few opportunities. We are always thankful for their sacrificial work!