The Power of We: Helping women escape the poverty trap

The Co-operative Movement can help to change the attitudes and poverty that are facing women across the world - by using the power of we. 

On Thursday 11 October, the first International Day of the Girl was celebrated globally.

Sadly, on the same day, a young 14-year-old girl was shot in the head by the Taliban for writing an online blog about the troubles in Pakistan and the ban on girls attending school.

The war on gender is rife across the world – women fight for their own survival, face gender discrimination and sometimes lack any power to change things.

The Co-operative Movement is beginning to help some of those women fight their way out of poverty. These inspirational women work together against all odds to provide a better life for themselves and their family, and they are able to do it, because they have the power of WE.

Women in rural Zambia often find themselves in a poverty trap; they have limited access to resources, education or decision-making power, with low self-worth or hope for a better future.

With help from Land O'Lakes International Development, which is part of the Corporate Social Responsibility arm of the second largest agricultural co-operative in the U.S., over 250 women were linked to a Milk Collection Centre through a dairy co-operative.

The impact this has had on the women’s lives is indescribable. Many faced prejudice, being made laughing stocks in their villages for attending training. Cultural norms normally prevent women from owning cattle, but each woman was given a cow to help their dairy business.

This programme gave them an opportunity of a lifetime.

One woman named Sheila Musulumba from the community of Mutandalike in Choma district spoke of how her husband would physically attack her for attending the trainings. “He would beat me up and accuse me of being promiscuous [and] pretending I was going for trainings. But I didn’t give up because my children and I were suffering. I knew that this programme was the answer to getting us out of our misery.”

Sheila was right. She explained: “After I received the pass-on cow, he changed his attitude towards me. When he saw the benefits of the dairy program, he too decided to join the program and he is now a member of the dairy co-operative.”

Across the world, many women hold the top jobs in the co-operative movement. Dame Pauline Green is the first female President of the International Co-operative Association, in the UK, the Co-operative Party has recently appointed it’s first female General Secretary, Monique Leroux, is the president of the highly successful Desjardins and Kristen Christian has been making waves in the US as the Founder of Bank Transfer Day.

In Britain, Co-operatives UK organised the Co-operative Women’s challenge with the theme ‘women at the heart of the co-operative movement’ and the Co-operative Group set up a campaign against poverty to help smallholder farmers in the developing world, many of whom are women.

However, there is still a way to go. Co-operatives in the developing world will often give men the power, leaving the women with little to gain from the venture.

On 31 October in Manchester, gender issues in the co-operative movement will take centre stage at the Co-operatives United conference, the biggest co-operative conference in the world, which will mark the end of the International Year of Co-operatives.

The Gender Forum will discuss women’s role society, women at work, women in the boardroom and hear from inspirational stories from the next generation. The Co-operative Movement is giving women a voice to change their lives across the world.

By working as one, they are stronger, than they would be alone. They have the power of WE.

The Land O'Lakes program in Zambia – the Consortium for Food Security, Agriculture and Nutrition, AIDS, Resiliency and Markets (C-FAARM) – was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

In partnership with World Vision and CARE International, Land O'Lakes transitioned 913 farmers, including 230 female-headed households, off food aid and into developing sustainable livelihood activities that helped them become self-reliant.

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