CGIAR Gender

Crafting the next generation of CGIAR research – Women’s empowerment in value chain development

One of the final outputs of the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research, a book, introduces critical ideas for the next generation of CGIAR gender research: ‘How can agricultural research contribute to gender equality in its own right?‘. This series introduces each of the forthcoming book chapters.

Markus Ihalainen (CIFOR)
Markus Ihalainen (Center for International Forestry Research / CIFOR)

In this post, we zoom in on the chapter ‘Women’s empowerment in value chain development’ with co-author Markus Ihalainen from the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

This chapter is looking to do two things: 1) Review the evidence of empowerment outcomes linked to participation in value chains, and 2) assess ways in which such outcomes can be enhanced (or constrained) by various value chain development (VCD) efforts. There hasn’t been much work done systematically looking at empowerment as an outcome from value chain participation, so we wanted to first think about what empowerment means in the context of value chains, what the theory of change is, and then see what evidence is out there. Our team comprises people from four different CGIAR Centers as well as the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research. We are pulling case studies from aquaculture, livestock, agriculture, forestry, thus covering nearly all CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs). But we have also looked at external sources.

The evidence is mixed about the outcomes of women’s involvement in value chains, as it depends on what you are looking at e.g. household relations, power relations within the value chain, or more structural dynamics. An oil palm plantation might for instance offer employment to women, who – due to the expansion of oil palm – have few other livelihood options. While the relationship between the women and the companies might be exploitative and involve hazardous tasks, poor job security and low pay, the income women earn may still allow them to renegotiate household financial decision-making dynamics. But then again, economic empowerment is rarely found to translate into reduced reproductive labor burdens for instance. So does oil palm promote empowerment? It depends on how we understand empowerment and what particular relationship or level we are interested in. So we really need to ask ourselves what we mean when we talk about empowerment in the context of agricultural value chains? What is our theory of change? Does it encompass empowerment in a holistic manner, from the individual and relational to structural levels?

What we find is that there is definitely some evidence pointing towards empowerment gains, pertaining especially to issues such as improved positioning within the value chain, increased confidence and agency in economic decision-making, creating space for collective action and – often indirectly and to a lesser extent – challenging norms around gender division of labor. But the direction of impacts is very much influenced by pre-existing power relations within the household, community and value chain. Importantly, mainstream ideas around empowerment tend to posit that individual empowerment will allow women to challenge structural inequalities. But what we find is that women’s economic empowerment does not necessarily translate into social or political empowerment. In fact, some of the mechanisms that have been identified as critical to facilitating empowerment within value chains, such as job security or freedom to organize, may run counter to the market logic that facilitated women’s entry into the casual and low-pay jobs in the first place. So while it’s not all doom and gloom, our findings definitely caution against exaggerating the role of value chains and market-led development approaches in bringing about empowerment and equality. Critically, if we are interested in empowerment, let’s look at it as a goal in its own right and in all its complexity, instead of watering it down to a few things that markets can deliver. Let’s try to understand how social change happens, what are the processes that drive change, and then think about how value chains can support these processes.