Women co-operators explore gender equality progress in the context of Covid-19

An ICA webinar looked at what more the movement could do to support women

A webinar from the International Co-operative Alliance’s Gender Equality Committee (GEC) brought together co-operative women leaders and UN agencies to discuss how the sector could further support women during Covid-19.

“Covid-19 is reversing the progress made on SDGs,” said Wenyan Yang, chief of the Social Perspective on Development Branch of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). She added that women were among the marginalised groups most likely to suffer, along with older people, those disabled, indigenous populations, refugees and migrants.

The chair of the GEC, Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea, talked about her co-op’s gender equality policy, which has been in place since 2013. Based in Colombia, Coomeva invokes gender equality in its co-op statute and has also obtained a gender equality seal certification named Equipares, which was developed by the Labour Ministry with the collaboration of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Prof Esther Gicheru from the Co-operative University of Kenya, who chairs ICA Africa’s Research and Gender Committees, looked at some of the Covid initiatives undertaken by co-ops in Africa – from a Moroccan co-op producing masks to the Mozambican Association for the Promotion of Modern Cooperativism joining an awareness campaign on violence against women.

In the Dominican Republic, a health co-op has been at the forefront of fighting the pandemic. Xiomara Nunez de Cespedes talked about Cooproenf, a medical co-op with 18,000 members – which faced Covid-19 challenges such as stress from long staff hours, PPE shortages, interfamily violence and unequal access to digital technology. The co-op’s priority was to protect its members – it developed an economic contingency plan and decided to provide credit and advances to staff in need.

Nandini Azad, chair of the ICA’s Asia Pacific Women’s Committee, called on co-ops to address gender-based violence which, she said, was closely linked to patriarchy. “The leadership of women cannot be decided by men,” she said.

Women’s co-ops in India suffered losses due to the pandemic but the majority did not shut their businesses, she added. Instead they adopted new strategies, such as digital technologies, with some providing digital training to enable women members to access loans. Ms Azan called for more gender disaggregated data to assess issues such as the impact of Covid-19 on women’s income and incidents of domestic violence.

In Sweden We Effect, an NGO set up by the country’s co-operative movement 60 years ago, is driving gender equality by actively asking partner organisations to present projects with a gender element. We Effect has led co-operative development projects in 20 countries across the world. Partners are also asked to report on the allocation of funding and what they are doing to improve existing disparities. The NGO also pledged 50% of all official development funding for projects designed to benefit women and girls. 

Judith Hermanson from the International Cooperative Research Group of the US Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) shared insights into the difference co-ops make in Poland, Kenya, the Philippines and Peru, based on OCDC research.

“The story emerging is quite powerful – women who are co-op members are better off financially than their counterparts, better connected socially and they are skilled in business and finance,” she said. Challenging social and cultural and institutional norms can also help to address some of the barriers women in leadership positions face, said the panellists – and co-ops can play a role.

Simel Esim, head of the Co-operatives Unit at the International Labour Organization, said women leaders are in minority in some co-operative sectors, such as agriculture and retail. “It’s important for women leaders in co-op movement to call attention to this,” she said, adding that flexible hours, paternity leave, elimination of workplace violence and tackling burnout can help to address some of the issues.

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