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Markets for Change: Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Pacific Islands

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Alexandra Mierzwa
September 23, 2022

Women’s economic empowerment is necessary to advance societies. In the Pacific region, women yield consequential economic power as market vendors. Yet, women are severely under-represented in regional and national political and economic institutions and historically have been excluded from economic planning and decisionmaking. To address this issue, representatives of women vendors’ associations and local governments collaborated with UN Women to launch the Markets for Change (M4C) project. Through facilitated workshops and participatory planning, the M4C initiative amplified women’s voices and instigated increased female representation in the Pacific Islands’ markets. The M4C project sheds light on how participatory tools can help create equitable economic empowerment for women.

In Pacific Island nations, women primarily work in agriculture or are self-employed, positions that are not represented in more traditional economic measures like gross domestic product (GDP). As such, they are vulnerable workers: They are subject to discrimination and have little representation in regional or national economic or political institutions. Women vendors stand at the intersection of working in agriculture and being self-employed and historically have been marginalized in economic decisionmaking. In an attempt to combat this, female market vendors in certain Island nations collaborated to form Market Vendor Associations (MVAs) to give female vendors a safe place to gather and express their views. However, these MVAs were powerless as they did not have the resources to advocate for their economic interests. To drive awareness of this issue, associations approached local governments, which in turn garnered the attention and support of UN Women. Together, UN Women, MVAs and local governments crafted the Markets for Change (M4C) project to strengthen the role and influence of women vendors. The goal was to create accessible, inclusive and representative governance structures to help markets thrive through empowering women. These channels were created through the use of participatory tools, including facilitated workshops and participatory planning.

The first step in this initiative involved strengthening and formalizing existing market vendor associations. In places where these associations did not exist, groups of women vendors, assisted by the UN, established them. Through these MVAs, women vendors underwent financial literacy training, business management training and advocacy training. Additionally, vendors engaged in facilitated workshops. During workshop sessions, participants discussed issues they faced in their markets and the changes they envisioned. Exercises started at the local level and morphed to explore the structural shifts needed for women to be better represented on the national stage. Facilitators asked participants how they could manifest the changes they wanted to see and taught them to pursue their visions through participatory strategic planning. These workshops equipped women to become active agents of change and lead improvements in the working conditions of markets in their communities and advocate for more economic representation.

The establishment and reactivation of Market Vendor Associations in the Pacific Islands Region gave women vendors the tools they needed to work toward economic equity. Through participatory workshops and planning, women vendors identified opportunities to revise the operations of their markets, catalyzing changes in existing economic structures to reflect women’s economic interests. This project illustrates how multilateral institutions can use participatory tools to empower local communities to induce positive structural change. Communities around the world can benefit from using participatory tools in a variety of ways: from bolstering small business communities to empowering migrant worker and refugee populations to thrive in host countries’ economies. When given the right tools, citizens can drive change within institutions to make them more responsive to citizens’ needs.

To learn more about this case, visit https://participedia.net/case/5522.  To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.

Author: Alexandra Mierzwa is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration with a specialization in international and development administration and a certificate in advanced studies in conflict and collaboration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is passionate about collaborative governance to empower citizens so they can make institutions more responsive to their needs. Prior to Maxwell, she worked in advocacy communications for a public affairs firm in Brussels, Belgium and worked on corporate social responsibility communications for Disneyland Paris.  

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