Women in cooperatives
A cooperative ("co-op") is an autonomous association of persons who voluntarily cooperate for their mutual, social, economic, and cultural benefit through a mutually owned and democratically run enterprise. Cooperatives include non-profit community organizations and businesses that are owned and managed by the people who use their services (consumer cooperatives) or by the people who work there (worker cooperatives) and take on a variety of forms, ranging from officially registered cooperatives to loosely organized groups of neighbors, family, and kin networks. Cooperatives are based on values like self-help, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. These values, among other aspects of cooperatives, are particularly useful in empowering women through membership. In statements in advance of International Women's Day in early 2013, President of the International Cooperative Alliance, Dame Pauline Green, said, "Cooperative businesses have done so much to help women onto the ladder of economic activity. With that comes community respect, political legitimacy and influence." Cooperatives allow women who might have been isolated and working individually to band together and create economies of scale as well as increase their own bargaining power in the market.
However, despite the supposed democratic structure and the values and benefits shared by cooperative members, particularly women, due to gender norms and other instilled cultural practices, women suffer a disproportionately low representation in cooperative membership around the world. Representation of women through active membership (showing up to meetings and voting), as well as in leadership and managerial positions is even lower. Women's cooperatives, run by and composed entirely of women, may be structured in a way that makes it easier for women to participate.
Benefits of cooperatives to womenEdit
Rachel MacHenry argues that cooperatives have several common features that are particularly beneficial to women, including "ensuring a fair return on work, support for members, safe working conditions, availability of pooled or purchased raw materials, and access to viable markets." Furthermore, she says that they serve as a "crucial link" between Western markets and local kin-based structures in developing countries. In the same collection of essays, Brenda Rosebaum says that a cooperative can go beyond simply providing an income for the poor women members involved or stimulating the larger community in which it is located, cooperatives have "empowered" women, "enhanced their dignity, and greatly improved their quality of life."
In a study of a Nepalese women's cooperative, Rachel MacHenry found that social barriers among women were broken down due to the inclusion of women of different classes, castes, and ethnicities. Moreover, these women often bonded over common experiences and similar motivations for participation in the cooperative. Other shifts occurred in women's independence, including reports of increased physical mobility, including more confidence walking alone as well as riding public transportation. Women also benefited from an increased self-worth and more confidence in interactions with family members and upper class people. Some women weavers felt that they had gained more bargaining power in the eyes of business people who had previously exploited them; other women claimed that they had gained a larger sense of their value and overall contribution to their own households.
Another principal benefits of cooperative work is that it allows women the opportunity to gain a decent wage while still leaving time and freedom for other responsibilities important to them such as caring for children and families. Furthermore, benefits often trickle down to the children of women engaged in cooperatives. In the case of the cooperative UPAVIM in Guatemala, a strong emphasis was placed on savings for children's education.
Alternative/complement to microcreditEdit
Much controversy surrounds microcredit loans in regards to empowering women, Karim argues, based on a 1999 ethnographic study, that microcredit nongovernmental organizations have too much power over the lives of rural people, which has a particularly detrimental effect on women. Karim highlights the negative tactics often used in loan recovery, in which group responsibility plays a large role and women's honor is publicly shamed if they default. Similarly, after conducting a 2008 study of small women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, Jahiruddin et al. deduct that microcredit can even worsen poverty of borrowers in certain conditions. One-fourth of cases from a survey, spanning 35 villages and including 320 microcredit borrowers, showed no improvement in economic status of the borrowers, and in 6% of the cases poverty actually worsened due to various reasons like investment in activities that are slow to start generating revenue or encountering emergency circumstances that led to the use of the loan for other purposes.
Cooperatives offer a way out of these negatives situations that microcredit puts women in due to the communal net and support that they provide through rough times. Furthermore, they allow women, who might have been isolated and working individually in the informal economy, to avoid loan defaults because they are able to join with other members to create economies of scale and increase their influence and bargaining power in the market.
Women's cooperatives are often built on ideas of sisterhood, equality, and strength from unity. Consequently, many have rejected hierarchical organizational structures in favor of more democratic participation where every member's input counts equally. Some cooperatives require consensus (instead of compromise or majority approval) for decision-making. Equal participation relies on individuals verbally articulating their opinions to the group; this in itself can be unequal since more experienced and articulate members can dominate discussions. Unlike in profit-oriented organizations, outcomes can be measured in terms of politics and policy, cultural outcomes, mobilization, and self-development.
In Africa, though women account for roughly 80% of food production, they receive less than 10% of credit offered to small-scale farmers and only 7% of agricultural extension services. They own less than 1% of all land. By permitting women farmers to join together as a cooperative, individuals are better able to acquire inputs, production services, and marketing for their produce. This enhances productive capacity and opens access to markets that would not be possible for an individual operating alone. Furthermore, there is “solid evidence” that membership in a cooperative enhances productivity, income, and quality of life for the person involved, as well as the greater community.
Care work sectorEdit
Women are over-represented in paid care work the world over, and care work is oftentimes undervalued and underpaid. Those performing it have low levels of collective organization, low bargaining power, inadequate working conditions, as well as low access to business inputs that are needed in the care sector like in any other. Women also have gender-specific health needs regarding reproduction, and "are major (potential) consumers of health and care services, such as maternal health and maternity protection, HIV/AIDS prevention and mitigation, or child or elderly care services."
Cooperatives contribute to a positive change for working women both as providers and recipients of health care services. In Africa, where cooperatively organized care provision has in many cultural contexts been an intrinsic part of the social fabric, it is today gaining visibility, and increasing in the range of services provided and level of formality. For example, the Soweto Home-Based Care Givers Co-operative, which was set up in 2001, provides "nursing care, counseling, hospital transport and food parcel distribution to people living with HIV/AIDS". In other regions of the world, examples abound of women working in the care sector improving their working conditions and accessing much-needed services. For instance, the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in India runs cooperatively operated childcare centres and maternity benefits via an insurance cooperative as part of a holistic response to the needs of women.
Craft and artisan sectorEdit
By engaging in artisan cooperatives, women can gain new skills and training, access higher quality raw materials, and get paid for finished work directly upon delivery at the cooperative marketplace. In addition, they often have access to benefit programs for cooperative product producers. In a Nepalese textile cooperative, this included such things as, "a savings and loan system, retirement fund, bonus program, girl-child education fund, health services, peer counseling, legal counseling, and a fair price shop." Cooperatives also secure connections with alternative trade organizations (ATOs) that help connect members with buyers, obtain orders, and export the artisan work to markets around the world.
Savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs) are much more accessible to women than standard banks, especially in rural areas, due to the fact that they are “locality-based,” making them more culturally sensitive and less intimidating. Moreover, they tend to offer a wider range of loan sizes, allowing women to find suitable loan conditions, such as smaller sizes to fit their business, health, or educational needs.
Conflicts are rampant in the Middle East and cooperatives are thus able to make huge strides for women. Participation by women in these areas is especially limited and usually confined to small, women-only cooperatives, mainly because overall number of cooperatives equals less than 1 percent of employment opportunities in the occupied Palestinian territory, Lebanon, and Iraq combined. Women's land ownership and employment rates are also extremely low in these areas, with women holding less than one-fourth of all jobs.
During times of conflict, cooperatives may be most advantageous because they enable members to accumulate savings, pool resources, access credit, and share risks. By combining the power of rural women in conflict states who would have achieved very little by themselves, cooperatives provide a functional tool for empowerment and economic independence, in addition to providing a “long-term sustainable socioeconomic recovery” following conflict.
Barriers to women's participationEdit
A study carried out by the ILO found that cooperative laws are "gender neutral" and do not directly discriminate against women. However, in reality laws intended to protect women are ignored in favor of cultural norms or are maneuvered around. Most legal barriers to women's cooperative membership are largely indirect and written into cooperative bylaws, such as rules that only one member per family can have membership when the cultural norm encourages male membership as a first choice. In agricultural cooperatives, it is often the case that membership requires land ownership, and since women are severely underrepresented in land ownership the world over, this serves to inhibit women from joining.
Traditional role of womenEdit
In many developing countries there is a "prevalent misconception" that reproductive and domestic roles should be a woman's most important job. When women attempt to add an income-earning job on top of other roles, pressure to uphold the unequal division of labor and care work in the household severely restricts their job choices, even putting them on the outside circle in cooperatives because there is little time left for mandatory meeting attendance and other tasks.
In Latin America, machismo ideology permeates the culture and gives women virtually all the responsibility in child care, domestic work, and other subsistence activities. Furthermore, these domestic obligations inhibit women from accessing jobs that are better paid because they require uninterrupted work for long hours. Brenda Rosenbaum says that, "However hard they work, women at this level of poverty find it difficult to overcome the gender constraints imposed on them." Many women get trapped by pressures and criticism from family members and neighbors that believe the independence cooperatives encourage is "immodest" or too "forward," even to the extent of fathers or husbands forbidding involvement.
Access to resourcesEdit
Lack of access to resources inhibits women from creating new cooperatives and affects their roles in existing ones. Because women often lack their own independent assets, it is more difficult for them to invest in cooperatives on their own. Moreover, many women in developing countries suffer a disparity in levels of education, both overall and in relation to men, especially in regards to business experience and knowledge. Women's absence in land ownership on a large scale has also prevented their involvement in many agricultural cooperatives.
Women's lack of access to finance, due to a variety of factors such as absence of collateral and negotiating power, is one of the main barriers to improving the productive capacity of women workers. The large majority of microfinance institutes view rural women as “[ostensibly] a credit risk.” When women are approved for loans, they are often faced with unmanageably high interest rates, averaging 10% per month, which can deplete savings quickly. Although savings and credit cooperatives exist in developing countries to avoid dealing with microfinance institutions and are often the recipients of support services from the government, many are still male-dominated and discourage women from joining. For example, in Kenya, only 3% of women have access to the formal financial sector, as opposed to 44% of men.
Funding and opportunities from government and other institutions may be limited depending on how cooperatives label themselves (“agricultural co-op” versus “women’s co-op,” for example). Women’s cooperatives are sometimes dismissed as radical political groups, especially if the organization is new. This was the case for Saheli, a Mumbai-based cooperative for sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.
Encouraging women's participationEdit
Since the early 1990s the promotion of gender equality has been a focus of the international cooperative movement. In 1995, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) passed a resolution called "Gender Equality in Cooperatives" in which gender equality was named a global priority by members. The ICA has also been involved in the development of training materials on gender and cooperatives in various languages including French, English and Spanish, as well as leadership development manuals made especially for women in cooperatives.
In 2002, the International Labour Organization (ILO) released Recommendation No. 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation that explicitly states: "special consideration should be given to increasing women's participation in the cooperative movement at all levels, particularly at management and leadership level". Despite this and all of the benefits to women, as a reflection of larger society, women tend to be shut out of leadership and decision-making positions in mixed-gender cooperatives, and often do not benefit to the same extent as their male counterparts.
The United Nations General Assembly declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives (IYC) in hopes of spotlighting the contribution of cooperatives to economic development and social development, especially their effects on "poverty reduction, employment generation, and social integration."
A. Nippierd argues that on a more micro or local level, sensitizing managers and leaders of cooperatives to gender issues is a key starting point towards increasing gender equality. It is only with a full understanding of the issues and a strong decision to methodically address them that proactive measures begin to be enforced. This essential step should be partnered with other legal means such as "mainstreaming" gender equality into all cooperative policies, bylaws, statements, initiatives, and programs, etc. Gender analysis can also be utilized to pinpoint problem areas in policy or culture.
Capacity-building of individual women should also be a focus for improving gender equality in cooperatives, especially due to the education gap and subsequent occupation gap commonly suffered by women in many developing countries. Special care should be taken to ensure that women represent an equal proportion in training and educational programs. Furthermore, these programs should be particularly sensitive to the needs of women, even going to the extent of specific designs where necessary, and should also include confidence-building measures.
Identifying women as potential leaders and encouraging and supporting them through advanced training, mentoring, and coaching has also been identified as a successful policy. In countries where women are particularly disadvantaged under the laws, Nippierd argues that cooperatives should join together in "national coalitions and alliances with gender advocacy organizations and other civil society organizations to lobby governments for equal rights (especially in property and asset ownership) and an effective legal framework and institutions that foster gender equality."
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