This year, as part of a campaign to reduce inequality and achieve gender equality, the United Nations launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The goals covered topics such as equal education, female empowerment and ensuring healthy lives for everyone. The goals were highlighted on the International Day of Co-operatives, celebrated by the UN and co-ops around the world in July.
The Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Co-operatives (COPAC) – an alliance of bodies including the International Co-operative Alliance and the UN – spoke about the situation. A statement read: “While a small portion of the population enjoys prosperity, many continue to endure poverty, unequal access to education and employment opportunities, disease, conflict and harsh living condition.”
The Alliance and International Labour Organisation also looked into co-ops and gender equality. Their joint report Advancing Gender Equality: The Co-operative Way showed that 75% of people surveyed believed co-ops had helped the participation of women in the last 20 years. 80% said co-ops were better than other businesses for advancing gender equality.
It wasn’t all positive, however, as 75% said the co-ops they knew had less than 50% women as board members, despite women making up the majority of the clientele and members. These findings were echoed in an investigation from Woccu and the Filene Research Institute about women’s involvement in leadership roles at credit unions. The World Council’s Global Women’s Leadership Network was set up to help connect credit union women across the world, and offer professional and personal support.
The Fairtrade Foundation also looked at women’s participation in supply chains. On International Women’s Day In March, it published the Equal Harvest Study which called for more women in developing countries to join organisations that grow produce like bananas, coffee and tea. Women make up around half the agricultural workforce in those nations, but only 22% are registered as members of organisations certified by Fairtrade.
The report explained: “Local norms, attitudes and customs related to the role of men in society often create barriers to women’s participation.” It explained how it was important for women to be members, as it gives them the right to vote, participate in decision making, as well as the right to receive benefits and to live in dignity.
Some producer co-ops took action themselves. Kuapa Kokoo, the Ghanaian cocoa co-op that owns half of Divine Chocolate, formed a gender committee to ensure gender equality across the organisation. Similarly, Bukonzo Joint Co-operative Union – a union of coffee growers in western Uganda – introduced a policy of joint membership for married couples, resulting in 83% of their members being women.
2015 has seen various initiatives to tackle inequality and give young people support through co-operation.
The Central England Co-op’s SENse to Aspire programme aims to give students with special educational needs or disadvantaged backgrounds a better chance of getting a job. In partnership with Selly Oak Trust School in Birmingham, the programme offers advice to students on CV writing and interview technique. They also spend two days in one of the society’s food stores or florists, to gain more practical experience.
Department of Health figures suggest that pupils from the school, which caters for young people with special educational needs, have only a 7% chance of finding a job. Maryann Denfhy, corporate responsibility manager at the society said: “The legacy would be to encourage other businesses and schools to involve children with learning difficulties and put these students, not just their best students, forward for work experience.”
In the housing sector, schemes like Ty Cyfle in Pontypool continue to help young people. The Bron Afon Community Housing Youth Forum led the project to refurbish a community centre into a block of eight starter homes for 16-24 year olds who are, or aspire to be, in education, employment, training or volunteering. The team help young people stand on their own two feet and move on to a new place within two years, as well as offering access to facilities for local people to get computer training and hunt for jobs. Chief executive of Bron Afon Duncan Forbes said: “This service is unique because it is led by young people who know how the combination of accommodation and tailored support will help their peers succeed.”
Finally, five groups of young entrepreneurs received the first Young Co-operators Prize. AltGen and Co-operatives UK ran the idea as part of wider plan to empower young people, with the groups receiving £2000 to develop co-op businesses plus support and advice. The winners were London web developers Founders and Coders, Bradford communications group Chapel Street Studio Co-operative, digital news platform London Student, Plymouth co-working space provider Dialogue, and Ceramics Studio in London.
In January, the Co-op Group was named among Stonewall’s top 100 employers, the annual list of Britain’s most gay-friendly workplaces.
The Group was ranked 26th in the list which aims to showcase employers taking part in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index – the UK’s leading benchmark of how employers support lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGBT) employees.
The Group has a Respect network for LGBT employees which provides voluntary support to raise awareness of LGBT community initiatives, local pride events and charities.
In the past, the Group has been ranked in the top five, although this year Stonewall changed the ranking requirements for what employers needed to do to provide greater equality in the workplace. Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s chief executive said: “This year we made it harder than ever. The new criteria are stringent yet succinct. By participating, you’re actively demonstrating your commitment to sexual orientation equality.”
In October, the Co-operative Women’s Guild voted to dissolve as a national organisation from June 2016. The decision brings the curtain down on 132 years of history, since its inception in 1883 in England and Wales (1892 in Scotland).
At a special general meeting in Coventry, the motion to dissolve was carried by 27 votes to three. Although there will no longer be a national executive committee, rule book or head office, regional organisations are welcome to continue meeting as and whenever they wish.
The Guild was founded to educate women in principles and practices of co-operation, and to work on improving the status of women. Early successes for the Guild included the maternity benefit introduced in 1911, and infant welfare facilities – partly down to Guild pressure. It also introduced white commemorative poppies as a pacifist alternative and continued to campaign for social justice up to the present day, supporting campaigns like Save the NHS, and ending female genital mutilation.
Many worried that the dissolving of the Guild was robbing the co-op movement of a specific focus for women’s rights, while others said it was a good moment to reimagine the ways in which women’s co-operative contribution could be celebrated and extended.
In this article
- Bradford communications group Chapel Street Studio Co-operative
- British co-operative movement
- Bron Afon Duncan Forbes
- Bukonzo Joint Co-operative Union
- Business models
- Central England
- Central England Co-operative
- Ceramics Studio
- Chapel Street Studio Co-operative
- CO-OPERATIVE Group
- Co-operatives UK
- Department of Health
- Fairtrade Foundation
- Filene Research Institute
- Gender equality
- International Co-operative Alliance
- International Labour Organisation
- Maryann Denfhy
- Ruth Hunt
- Selly Oak Trust School in Birmingham
- United Nations
- United Kingdom
- Top Stories