Fair Trade Cooperatives and Women's Empowerment: Impacts for US Policy on Food Security and HIV

Research by:

Miranda Bernstein (Beloit College) and Georgia Duerst-Lahti, Ph.D. (Department of Political Science, Beloit College)


Can small cooperatives designed for women’s employment and empowerment in three Southern African countries inform US policy toward food security and HIV/AIDS? Although the scale and scope of cooperatives with fewer than 5,000 households seems a paltry site of evidence for major US policy initiatives, in-depth analysis of the micro level can provide important insights into macro-level policy, much as was true of the World Bank’s shift to supporting micro loans. Using a month-long participant observation, structured interviews with 20 respondents, and a focus group at one producer organization, we find organized, small fair-trade activity has strong impact upon women’s sense of empowerment, ability to feed their households, and orientation to HIV and health generally. This depth analysis is supplemented with profiles of two additional small producer organizations, developed through site visits, and interviews with key informants. Evidence suggests participation in organized (fair) trading activity contributes to efficacy, which is reflected in household gender power dynamics, as well as community status. Further, even a small increase in income shapes how often and how well these families eat, which has direct bearing on the success of HIV treatment. We conclude US policy should strengthen support for such activity in its HIV and food security policies and explicitly attend to the link between such micro-level income and women’s empowerment efforts.

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