Listening, asking questions, and discussing sensitive topics in a safe environment is what regularly brings together members of the Assemanou community, 37km from Abengourou in Côte d’Ivoire. Over the last year, Nestlé and ICI, supported by the World Cocoa Foundation and USAID’s Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) Initiative, have been organizing dialogue sessions for couples to explore topics related to gender equality in Assemanou and other cocoa-growing communities, within the framework of Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs).

VSLAs have been used for several years to increase the income of cocoa-farming households and empower their female members. These dialogue sessions ensure the positive impacts of VSLAs in the long term, minimizing any unintended negative consequences, and generally improving gender equality in the households and in the community.

VSLAs use members’ contributions and savings to finance loans to members of the group. They provide access to credit services in remote communities and help improve household cash flow management. However, without an in-depth understanding of the VSLA concept by men, women’s participation in such groups can trigger feelings of injustice and at times lead to conflict. Partners can help by setting up discussions around gender equality for VSLA members.

In Assemanou, members of the community are discussing “communication and trust within the couple”. This is one of several subjects covered in the sessions, which also focus on improving self-esteem, the concept of gender, gender stereotypes, power, law and politics, and gender-based violence.

According to Bouakari Gnampa, a married cocoa farmer and father of 10 living in Assemanou, there has been a change among the women of the village, in addition to within his own relationship, following the sessions. “My wife has also changed, she takes more initiative," he explained. In addition, the sessions have helped Gnampa and other men in the village become more aware of the respect and support they owe their wives. "Before, I imposed my decisions. Today, I understand that it is necessary to discuss with women to be able to move forward," he added.  

Getting more involved in family decisions

The women say they are happy to participate in the group discussions and to see their partners actively involved, welcoming some of the changes they have seen in their husbands’ behaviour, for example making decisions that help the women in their daily tasks at home and in the fields, taking advice from their wives and involving them more extensively in family decisions.

One participant noted how the dialogue sessions had helped her and her husband to better resolve conflicts, which at times had led to violence: "Before, my husband used to hit me....  He doesn't hit me anymore. My husband has changed, he informs me before doing something or going out, and I feel more comfortable in my relationship," she said.

A different outlook among the men in the community

Many of the men were initially reluctant to participate in the group discussions, but eventually gave their approval, due in part to the change they saw in their wives and the success of the VSLA program. It was the same for the traditional authorities: "As a village chief, I participate in the meetings. I want to be informed of everything. I don't want an interpreter", Konan Koffi Firmin, the village chief in Blégokoffikro (a community near Soubré) told us. For him, the group discussions have brought a different outlook among the men in the community: "The discussions have been positive, we have joined in the dialogue, and the men have changed. This sends more love and peace into their homes," he said.

Another man from the community, Konan Martial N'Guessan, married and father of five, underlined similar experiences. For him, the dialogue sessions have had a personal impact: "I often participate, and it brings me a lot. I have even committed myself to helping my wife at home and in the field. There are no more quarrels. We consult each other, she gives her agreement and when I have to go somewhere, I inform her," he said, smiling.

Kaboré Oumar, a cocoa farmer married with three children took part in one of the role-playing exercises focusing on confidence during one of the sessions, where, blindfolded he was led by his wife around the workshop space. He reflected on what he had learned: "I have learned that you have to trust your wife. If a problem comes up tomorrow, she will know how to help you. I don't attend regularly, but for the little I have learned, I put it into practice," he said.

The creation of a gender committee

As part of the project, a gender committee composed of community members and a technical advisor (usually a member of the cocoa cooperative, trained by ICI) is set up in each community, and is supported to raise awareness on gender equality. The couples dialogue sessions are then held once a week, and include both VSLA members and their spouses, during which all parties make specific pledges to change their behaviour.  

The gender committee then supports households in the community to implement these resolutions. As Konaté Idrissa, a member of the gender committee in Blégokoffikro, said, "The gender committee must ensure that children have peace at home. This requires peace between the man and wife. So, we give advice to try to settle any arguments”.

Supporting cocoa-growing communities to tackle gender inequality is increasingly important. Studies show that when women in the household are empowered, child wellbeing and children’s access to education improves. Gender equality is a vital step in helping cocoa-growing communities to thrive, ensuring the protection of child rights and human rights, and tackling child and forced labour. Read more about how women’s empowerment and gender equality contribute to the fight against child labour.