Co-ops help to promote gender equality, says Simel Esim

The ILO is encouraging increased representation of women within co-ops as members and leaders, said the Programme Manager of the ILO’s Co-op Branch.

The ILO is encouraging increased representation of women within co-ops as members and leaders, said the Programme Manager of the ILO’s Co-op Branch.

ILO-supported initiatives across Africa help to empower women through co-operatives, being powerful instruments of social inclusion, explained Simel Esim.

She said: “Being committed to the co-op model does not guarantee that gender equality is going to be fully integrated into the enterprise. But one would think that gender equality would be well aligned with co-operative principles. Application of these principles is key. The practical training tools, strategies, guidelines need to be put in place to help facilitate the implementation of wider equality and non-discrimination agendas."

Ms Esim emphasised that although some co-ops may have a higher percentage of women members, this does not necessarily mean women are also holding leadership positions within these co-operative enterprises.

She said: “Although co-ops in UK may have women membership as high as up to 70 per cent, this is not necessary reflected in their representation in leadership position. This is a simple issue of being more responsive to members needs, if you want to reflect more accurately the priorities of your members, then it should naturally follow that you would like to have your leadership structures to be more aligned with the profile of that membership.”

The ILO’s co-op branch Chief said there is a tendency to over-generalise cultures. She said: “There are certain contexts in which you need to deal with culture, but it needs to be done in creative ways recognizing the dynamic, heterogeneous and changing nature of culture”.

Simel Esim said women-only co-ops  have been created when necessary and these sometimes can do better than mixed co-ops as they tend to be more cohesive and there is a different power relation within them.

Ms Esim added: “Across developing countries there is a large presence of women in co-operatives, especially those working in rural areas and informal economic activities. There are many women in co-ops in Africa, which fulfil livelihood and care needs of their communities."

A report published by the ILO in 2010 revealed women are known to produce up to 80 per cent of the food in Africa. However, the same report shows, they receive only seven per cent of agricultural extension services, less than 10 per cent of the credit offered to small-scale farmers and own only one per cent of the land. The co-operative model helps women and men farmers come together, enhancing their productive capacity and gain access to markets.

In Tanzania, the ILO supported the Nronga Women Dairy Cooperative Society to train its members to becomes entrepreneurs to gain more profit. Due to the ILO’s support, the volume of milk collected at their co-operative has increased and other women have also started similar businesses.

In Uganda, with the support of CoopAfrica, the Uganda Private Midwives Association (UPMA) supplements government efforts to address maternal and infant care as well as reproductive health problems. Another CoopAfrica – founded project in Kenya supported ten small and uneconomic diary co-operatives in the Machakos district, Wamaunyu FCS LTD and Masil FCS Lt, to federate and strengthen their position within the dairy sector. In Kenya 63 per cent ofthe people derive their livelihood, either directly or indirectly from co-operatives.

The ILO-supported project also promotes gender responsive farming technologies athrough the opening of gender friendly milk collection points as well as the establishment of village savings and loans associations for women and young people.

According to Ms Esim, gender equality will continue to be an important issue on the ILO's agenda.

Simel Esim is a political economist, working in the field of international social and economic development for the past twenty years. She has been with the International Labour Organization for the past nine years. Currently she is the Programme Manager of the Cooperatives Branch at the International Labour Organization in Geneva.

How can co-ops work to improve gender equality? Write your comments below. 

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