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Did you know that women play an important role in coffee production? They do most of the work and are therefore directly responsible for the quality of the coffee. Their work often goes unrecognized and unpaid. On international women’s day we want to share with you how Union adresses gender equality.

When coffee was first introduced into England in the late 1600s, it was largely drunk by men and only men. In coffeehouses rather than at home. Doctors welcomed this as a substitute for drinking alcohol in taverns, but women were not so happy. In 1674 an unknown author put out “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee”.

English coffee houses in the 17th and 18th century were also called penny houses, referring to the entry fee of a penny. Coffee houses were public, social places where people would meet for conversation and commerce while drinking coffee.

Not all historians agree on whether women were or were not allowed to enter coffeehouses. Yet, conversation certainly revolved around male centered subjects such as politics, business and cultural criticism. These topics were not supposed to concern women. A coffee house was no place for a lady who wished to remain respectable!

the womens petition against coffee

The Women’s Petition Against Coffee“, a satirical and humorous pamphlet, contained some thought provoking criticism on the existence of coffee houses…

The excessive use of coffee led, according to the pamphlet to “Eunucht our Husbands” or more poetically described “and as unfruitful as those Desarts (…)”

They also had “reason to apprehend and grow Jealous. That Men by frequenting these Stygian Tap-houses will usurp on our Prerogative of tattling, and soon learn to exceed us in Talkativeness: a Quality wherein our Sex has ever Claimed preheminence: (..)”

And were quite upset by men who “spend their Money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water”.

These satirical remarks express concern that men may become better at gossiping than women. They are tied in to concerns about a man and woman not being able to conceive children and become subject to social stigma. It ridicules male and female stereotypes and makes reference to mens’ choices on how to spend money.

In the 21st century this all seems a bit absurd, men and women can enter pubs and coffee houses to talk about politics and business (there’s still plenty of that to discuss). Very few people care if a woman decides to pursue a career instead of having children (or do both of course).

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Woman picking coffee in Rwanda Selective cherry picking is a meticulous task. It is quicker to just simply strip the cherries of the tree, not worrying about unripe and halfripe cherries. If women have no say in how the income earned with coffee production is spend within the household, and subsequently do not obtain any financial benefit from harvesting quality coffee there is no incentive to selectively pick. She would be better off strip picking the cherries and spend her time on other task.

Yet, some of these issues, are still a concern for many women all over the world, including countries we source coffee from. Traditional paradigms still exist about the role of men and women: Women should bear children, take care of their husbands and their homes. There is not much reason to study for little girls, as their future path is laid out for them already.

In many countries it’s not normal for women to have a say in how the household income is spent. Even if it was the woman who spent large proportions of her time attending the coffee plots and assuring the best quality of coffee has been produced.

Women in leadership roles are rare in developing countries. Some men are not convinced of having a woman in charge of running a business. Leadership roles often include travelling, late night working hours and meetings with men. For some men these are activities not suited for women or are at least looked upon with suspicion. A woman’s opinion does not always count.

We’re very aware of these issues and encourage farmers in making positve change towards gender equity. During our regular visits to origin gender-equity is a topic of conversation, what are farmers or farmer groups doing to promote gender-equity? What is the reason behind female cooperative membership numbers being so low? Are women present in boards of directors? Sometimes we go even further, such as supporting joint decision making – holding workshops on income and expenditure with men and women.We ensure we work with progressive farmers who understand that both men and women play an important role in producing quality, and henceforth should share the benefits together of their hard work and dedication.

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In Ethiopia we work together with the local school, we have trained the teachers (both male and female) in coffee quality control. The teachers will transfer their knowledge to the farmers, this is also called ‘Train-the-Trainer” and an effective way of reaching as many farmers possible. Training programme’s have traditionally been male led, this can lead to women feeling less comfortable to attend or in some cases even unable to attend.

The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) published a report called ‘The way forward – accelerating gender equity in coffee value chains’. It contains 8 recommendations of how companies, such as Union can accelerate gender equity.

  1. Increase woman’s participation in gender programme’s and revise training programme’s to be gender sensitive
  2. Invest in programmes to reduce time pressure for woman
  3. Improve woman’s access to credit and assets
  4. Support joint decision making on income and assets at the household level
  5. Achieve a greater gender balance in leadership positions
  6. Specifically source and market coffee from woman producers and coffee produced under conditions of gender equity
  7. Develop a list of coffee gender equity principles to unite and galvanize the industry
  8. Continue to build understanding through research and measurement

Below, some examples of how Union has implemented these recomendations:

  1. In developing the training for our Yayu Project gender was taken into account, we carefully thought about the best ways of including women and men in our training programme, making sure women were able to attend and would feel free to speak.
  2. We have specifically designed projects to improve women’s income, such as our Guatemala Bee Project
  3. We also specifically source coffee from women or women’s producers such as: Insert link to coffees available at that moment e.g. Colombian micro-lots.
  4. We are always trying to build our understanding, each country and each of our partners operate in a unique situation. We track key-indicators such as the presence of women in leadership roles, female cooperative membership and if we deem necessary we will have more in depth conversations with farmers about gender-equity. Find out about all our sourcing policies here.

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Maraba Rwanda, women working on the drying beds . Though, coffee production is hard work there is always some time to dance and sing.

So, Happy International’s Women’s Day, this year’s theme is #beboldforchange.

At Union we definitely keep working on making an change and contribute to gender-equity in the coffee value chain.

I’m afraid we can’t offer you “black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water” but we do have a delicious new coffee launched to coincide with International Women’s Day…

Carmen Sotara, Colombia is an exciting new addition to the range, it’s produced by an all female cooperative called APMPACS (Asociación de Mujeres Productoras Agropecuarias del Carmen Sotará ). It’s a new relationship and one we look forward to developing further. The coffee has notes of soft lemon toddy-like acidity, orange zest mid palate and delicate floral notes on the back end..

Try some today, from here

Pascale - Coffee lover, traveller and mother
Written by Pascale - Coffee lover, traveller and mother
I have worked with Union Hand-Roasted Coffee since 2011 and I have taken the Union Direct Trade model to another level. I now live in between El Salvador and Panama with my partner, Graciano Cruz, the renowned coffee farmer. This means I get to start my days drinking my favourite coffee variety: Geisha, honey or natural, preferably drip. I am a mother to baby Eliah, who joins me on most of my origin trips. I have an MSc. in International Development, specialised in rural economics. I'm fluent in Spanish, born in the Netherlands...struggling with British language and expressions. I work on a daily basis with cooperatives and farmers in Latin America and Africa on all kinds of socio-economic aspects from transparency, gender and environmental issues to farm workers rights. I am convinced that specialty coffee does makes a difference to farmers and helps create more sustainable livelihoods. I Spend a large amount of my time walking on farms, embraced by nature, working with beautiful people or cupping the world’s best coffee’s. I have the best job in the world!