The feminism of free trade

This International Women's Day, consider how free trade has helped give women in Burundi their independence

BY Joe Ware | tweet wareisjoe   /  7 March 2017

Nta nkokokazi ibika isaki ihari

(Hens don’t crow in the presence of a cockerel)

This Kirundi proverb provides a good hint of how women are traditionally expected to behave in Burundian society; particularly if men are around. It means they are likely to do a lot of the farming labour but often are not involved in the business decisions. It means that women do the lion’s share of domestic work and caring for children, but might not get a say over their reproductive health. It means that women might not be trusted with household finance decisions, or that girls too often get married before they’ve finished school.

But years of patriarchy is starting to shift thanks to the liberating power of trade and the purchasing preference of coffee drinkers 7000 miles away in Japan.

The joy of global trade means that all kinds of speciality needs and desires can be met. In Japan, one coffee buyer found that there was a profitable market for coffee grown specifically by vulnerable women.  This economic demand and supply has turned the tables on gender expectations among the coffee growing communities that are part of the scheme.

Burundi relies on its coffee to survive. The small landlocked country has few resources and is one of the poorest in the world. Compounding this has been civil unrest which erupted in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for an unconstitutional third term. Protests were met with violence and a failed coup was followed by delays in elections and the withdrawal of opposition parties. During the violence and fear sparked by the political crisis, Burundians started tweeting about #BeautifulBurundi, to ensure it wasn’t only bad news that the world heard about their country.

One of its successes is its capacity to grow coffee and tea. These account for 90 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings. This international trade keeps many families afloat and now, thanks to the coffee drinkers in Japan, it is now also helping to bring about a change in attitudes towards women.

The Japanese coffee buyer pays a premium to the women growers in the cooperative which is supported by UK charity Christian Aid. Before the influx of cash from the Japanese there were only 30 women members of the group, but that’s now expanded to 140 out of 372 farmers.

The women have different spending priorities with their cash – generally more goats, to help feed the family, and less beer. They have also spent the money on improving their homes and sending their kids to school.

This new-found economic heft has also changed the way they are viewed by their husbands, brothers and fathers. Within the household there is no longer the perception of one person being a provider and another a consumer. They are equal breadwinners, with more decisions being shared and women now having more control over their lives and more freedom.

But Estella Ngiendahayo, the leader of the women growers, said the biggest shift in attitudes has been among the women themselves. She said:

“I’m 50 years old and I’ve always heard that the coffee business was for men. But now minds have been changed, not just of the men, but of the women. They know that they can earn this money for themselves. In 10 years, women here will have their proper place.”

Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid


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