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Cooperatives and Women: Promoting Self-Empowerment

Cooperatives and Women

“Cooperatives, and other collective forms of economic and social enterprise, have shown themselves as distinctly beneficial to improving women’s social and economic capacities.”

April 18, 2012 - Women around the world contribute to their societies in many different ways. Quite often these contributions are not fully recognised and appreciated.

On 8 March each year the international community commemorates the International Day of Women, not only as a means of lauding some of these unrecognized and underappreciated contributions, but also to reflect on those areas of continued systemic discrimination against women and inhibition of their capacities.This past International Women’s Day, the world stopped to reflect on the plight of women in rural areas, and their unrealized potential for ending the global maladies of poverty and hunger.

The limitations and discrimination facing women as farmers and agricultural producers have profound effects, not just on the women affected, but also on society as a whole. In the State of Food and Agriculture Report 2010-11, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggested that increasing women farmers’ access to and use of productive resources could increase total agricultural output in the developing world by 2.5 to 4 per cent, potentially reducing hunger by 12-17 per cent.[1]In this context, cooperatives, and other collective forms of economic and social enterprise, have shown themselves as distinctly beneficial to improving women’s social and economic capacities.

The benefits to women of cooperative organization

In a study on women producers and the benefits of collective forms of enterprise, Jones, Smith and Wills found that organizing into collective enterprises, such as cooperatives, enables women to unite in solidarity and provide a network of mutual support to overcome restrictions to pursuing commercial or economic activities.[2]Similarly case studies of women’s cooperatives in rural Nigeria and rural India indicated that, compared to non-cooperative members, women engaged in cooperative activities were better off, in terms of productivity and economic wellbeing.[3],[4]In the Indian study, the members of the cooperatives reported on their increased economic security, the entrepreneurial skills acquired, and their increased contributions to the economic wellbeing of their families.[5] 

Through cooperative organization, women have also been able to effect positive change in thesocial and physical wellbeingof their families, communities, and nation. For instance, The Uganda Private Midwives Association helps change the daily lives of its members and the wider community by addressing maternal and infant care.[6]Similarly, the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union has developed some innovative programmes focused onaddressing the needs of children among the membership and the wider community. Its seven-year scholarship programme (2006-2012) meets the secondary educational expenses of community orphans and the vulnerable children of its members.[7] 

Studies have also shown that the elements of self –reliance and collective action built into the cooperative model also allow women to develop social capital that would be otherwise difficult to attain. Membership in collective enterprises allows women to build both working and personal relations, often increasing their social standing.[8]Women members of collective organizations also often report increased self-esteem and a sense of solidarity and support, particularly in times of need.[9] 

Challenges faced

The benefits to women brought by cooperative enterprise are many, but they are not universal. Some social and cultural nuances within households and communities can serve to limit how much of women’s returns they are able to retain. Similar constraints may also affect their ability to organize as cooperatives at all. In agricultural cooperatives in many Asian countries, women account for only 2 to10.5 per cent of total membership.[10]In addition, as with any other form of enterprise, women’s cooperatives still face the challenges of quality production, access to markets, market-driven prices and fair legislation.

Beyond the rural experience

While much of the available research on women in cooperatives focuses on women producers, in rural areas in developing countries, it is easy to see how the benefits of cooperatives could translate to improved livelihoods for urban women as well. In Italy, evidence shows that the application of cooperative employment in the social economy not only provided decent work for otherwise vulnerable or transitional individuals but also imparted them with the labour force and entrepreneurial skills to further diversify their livelihood prospects.[11]This element of capacity building is one that would be useful to normally marginalized women whether as rural or urban dwellers.

The collective strength and increased self-esteem associated with cooperative membership is also useful in strengthening women’s capacity to defend and secure their rights to decent living and decent work. In the United States, women domestic workers have used cooperatives as a means of organizing themselves to ensure fair wages and reduce exploitation.[12] 

Overcoming the challenges

Cooperatives and other forms of collective enterprise already feature greatly in the structure of global agricultural production, particularly in developing countries. However, the benefits of cooperatives cannot be realized without attention to gender inequality. [13] Despite the heavy involvement of women in agricultural production, they are still not well represented in membership and leadership of agricultural cooperatives. Developing women’s only cooperatives provides a strategy for including women in the benefits of cooperative organizations while speaking to some of the nuances of culture and social practice that may otherwise inhibit their full inclusion. As such, where policies and programmes focus on women’s economic empowerment, self-employed women workers, and women producers should be made aware of the benefits to creating cooperatives or joining existing ones. At the same time, where the option to cooperative membership exists, but the barriers to full participation of women are high, efforts must be made to sensitize cooperative members and leaders to issues of women’s rights and the benefits of women’s full participation.

Where cooperatives are in place, and women’s membership is strong, capacity building is still essential for effective participation. Cooperatives cannot function effectively if their members are not fully aware of and adherent to the values and principles at the core of cooperative organization and other forms of collective enterprise. For members to be effective, they have to be aware of their rights and roles as members and effective ways for managing cooperative leadership. This is especially pertinent in women’s only cooperatives, and with women cooperative members in settings where women usually maintain subservient, less visible roles in the household and community. This sort of empowerment can increase women’s leadership in cooperatives.

Operationally, it is important that cooperative members, whether women or men, have adequate knowledge of productive, market and legal processes relevant to their field of work. It is especially important to emphasize this in strengthening the capacities of women cooperative members, in situations where women’s access to education and information may be limited.  More specifically ensuring that women’s cooperatives have equal and adequate access to extension services and relevant productive and communication technologies is vital.

Relatedly, ensuring access to credit for women’s only cooperatives is essential for them to be able to grow. This not only requires reviewing structural barriers to financing for women and/or cooperatives, but also promoting the pursuit of cooperative networks or associations that can further strengthen the assets base and creditworthiness of cooperatives in need of financing. In this regard, and others, it is important to establish clear avenues for dialogue between women’s cooperatives, governments and other stakeholders. This will ensure that governments and other stakeholders are more responsive to the particular needs of women’s cooperatives.

In short, promoting cooperative organization among women is a worthy strategy for self-empowerment, but it is not without its political, social and cultural challenges. An important balance must thus be struck between cooperative formation, individual and organizational capacity building, government support and promotion, and organizational autonomy if the full benefits to women and their families are to be realized.

[1]Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2011). State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11. Women in

[2]Jones, Elaine; Sally Smith and Carol Wills. (2012). Women producers and the benefits of collective forms of enterprise.Gender and Development, 20:1, 13-32

[3]Amaza, P.S., P.V. Kwagbe, and A.A. Amos. 1999. Analysis of women participation in agricultural cooperatives: Case Study of Borno State, Nigeria. Annals of Borno 15/16:187-196.

[4]Datta, P. B. and Gailey, R. (2012), Empowering Women Through Social Entrepreneurship: Case Study of a Women’s Cooperative inIndia. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6520.2012.00505.x

[5]Datta and Gailey. (2012).

[6]For more information, please: http://healthmarketinnovations.org/program/uganda-private-midwives-organization-upmo

[7]See the following website: http://kncutanzania.com/index.html

[8]World Bank, ood and Agricultural Organization,and International Fund for Agricultural Development. (2009). Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook, Washington, DC: World Bank.

[9]Jones, Smith and Wills. (2012).

[10]Prakash, D (Rural Development and Management Centre, New Delhi, India). (2003). Rural women, food security and agricultural cooperatives.Paper produced for presentation and to serve as a theme paper at the 4th  Asian-African International Conference on Women in Agricultural Cooperatives in Asia and Africa organised jointly by the ICA, AARRO, JA-Zenchu and IDACA at Tokyo, Japan. August 24-29 1999

[11]Savio, M. and Righetti, A. (1993), Cooperatives as a social enterprise inItaly: a place for social integration and rehabilitation. ActaPsychiatricaScandinavica, 88: 238–242.

[12]Estey, K. (2011), Domestic Workers and Cooperatives: BeyondCare goes beyond capitalism, A case study inBrooklyn,New York. WorkingUSA, 14:347-365.

[13] See discussion by Mayoux, L. (1992), From Idealism to Realism: Women, Feminism and Empowerment in Nicaraguan Tailoring Co-operatives. Development and Change, 23: 91–114.