International Women's Day 2023: Future-proof business models urging for an intersectional approach

During the period leading up to the International Women’s Day, which is recognizedly celebrated around the world on the 8th of March each year, discussions around gender (in)equality arguably become more visible to the public eye than any other time. Although gender inequality is a long-standing and ever-present problem that prevalently exists around the world, the issue visibly occupies more space in the agenda around this particular date which is often manifested through campaigns, demonstrations, public statements and events by a variety of different actors ranging from political leaders, NGOs, celebrities, supranational and international organizations as well as corporations, to name a few.1 In many of these actions and discussions, we often see a clear reference to "women's empowerment"2 – the argument that there is an urgent need to ensure women's empowerment and an understanding of it as the ultimate goal or ideal to fight against gender inequality. Although the ultimate motivation of these actions and campaigns is to promote the well-being of women and their socio-economic situation, there seldom is a critical approach as to the systemic issues hindering the improvement of women’s condition, or what empowerment really entails.

The first issue that arises from this is related to the idea that promoting the economic empowerment of women, namely increasing the active participation of women in the official workforce, is crucial to ensure the betterment of their overall situation. Despite addressing the existence of a significant problem, these arguments almost never scrutinize the conditions of the late capitalist employment market that create these very problems in the first place. In this respect, there is a necessity on our part to be aware of “where” we want to create more room for women to work, and understand the systemic problems of  the neo-liberal employment market which operates through the mainstream business model of profit-maximization. If the working conditions  upon which the current economic system relies are not transformed, then increasing the number of women in the workplace will merely be a temporary solution. 


The second issue that we need to understand is about the word “empowerment” itself. Here, we see that this discourse promotes the idea of giving more power to women in all aspects of life, which although being well-intended in principle, once again presents an uncritical approach as to what power is and how it operates. By simply ensuring that women have power to be seen as valuable by external actors and to control their lives, namely by having as much power as men have, the empowerment idea designates a final destination to be reached where all socio-economic problems stemming from gender inequality will supposedly be solved. However, would making everybody equally powerful really solve the problem? Is it even possible to achieve such restorative measures when it comes to the power imbalance between men and women? Is power one-dimensional or multi-faceted? In other words, does gender as an axis of power operate on its own and hence can be approached as a free-standing issue, or does it work hand in hand with other issues such as economic situation, colonial background, unequal trading relations and climate change impact just to name a few?

Women’s Empowerment vs. Gender Justice 

As WFTO, this year we are campaigning to promote gender justice which is understood as the full equality and equity between women and men in all spheres of life. While empowerment generally refers to making women as powerful as men to achieve equality, justice is about questioning who holds power and how, as well as opening up the discussion that there is a necessity on the part of the power-holder to give up on that power to restore a just and equitable system. In this respect, we acknowledge the shortcomings of the idea that women should have to have more power to end inequality, and call for a substantial systemic change through re-thinking the late-capitalist economic system as well as the inequal power dynamics it creates and feeds from which is related to gender, but not exclusively. In this sense, power is not an ideal we should promote, but rather is a concept we need to problematize and see the strong connections of with the economic system of profit-primacy which create unequal relations related to gender, class, caste, climate change impact and access to resources.

Intersectional and Long-lasting Solutions to Structural Problems: The Significance of Fair Trade Enterprises 

WFTO members, especially Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) that fully practice Fair Trade show us that the viable alternative to the profit-maximizing business model they follow already provides long-lasting solutions to the problems related to gender inequality. They do this not only by promoting a business model where women have equal opportunities as to those of men to pursue leadership positions, grow their professional as well as personal skills and are protected from gender-based discrimination at the workplace, but also by tackling gender inequality as a socio-economic problem that is simultaneously enforced by and enforces other issues. WFTO’s 10 Principles of Fair Trade and its Guarantee System clearly show us that gender-based problems do not exist independently from others such as environmental decay, unequal patterns of trade or the perpetual existence of other discriminated groups in different contexts, and ensure that businesses tackle these issues concurrently in order to be fully regarded as Fair Trade Enterprises. In other words, WFTO’s Fair Trade system reminds us that gender inequality is not a singular issue that operates on its own and can therefore be solved in a one directional manner, but one that cannot be fully tackled unless all of the intersecting issues are simultaneously addressed. 

On the occasion of International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, we would like to invite all once more to campaign with us for gender justice, and emphasize once more that gender justice is a formative component of Fair Trade. Without gender justice, we cannot talk about achieving trade justice, environmental justice or vice versa. Happy International Women’s Day!

by Zerrin Cengiz

Photo credits: Global Mamas, Akanjo, Leatherina, Manos del Uruguay, Taller Maya, Chako


1For example, this year the United Nations have decided to dedicate the month of February to further disseminate the message for the Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality, and promoted the “Goal of the Month'' campaign ahead of the IWD and the Commission on the Status of Women. 


2Sustainable Development Goal 5 is officially named as “Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.