A new report by the International Co-operative Alliance and the International Labour Organization highlights how co-operatives help promote gender equality. The report, Advancing Gender Equality: The Co-operative Way, was released in time for the International Day of Co-operatives in July, which this year had the theme ‘choose co-operative, choose equality’.
The research involved an online survey, which gathered perspectives from around the world, and follow-up interviews with key informants. Overall 581 participants responded to the survey, 64% in English, 23% in Spanish and 12% in French.
Around 75% of respondents said they believed co-operatives had improved participation of women over the past 20 years.
In Europe and North America, interviewees reported achievements in gender equality particularly within the financial sector and in social co-operatives. In Africa, Latin America and India, interviewees reported particular progress in the agricultural sector. In other parts of Asia – where women participate primarily in consumer, credit, and producer co-operatives – interviewees stated that efforts to enhance women’s participation appear to be underway at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary levels of co-operative institutions).
Asked how co-operatives advanced the status of women, interviewees mentioned access to employment, improved conditions of work and social benefits. They highlighted that co-operatives created employment opportunities by facilitating women’s access to business capital and marketplaces. Co-operatives also provide access to legal and marketing services specifically tailored for women, and enable women to gain access to self-employment, they said. Through co-operatives women also gain collective bargaining power.
The report highlighted that co-operatives also facilitate various indirect effects on women’s employment. In fields such as food security, finance, housing, healthcare, childcare and eldercare, co-operatives provide women with affordable and accessible services, which enable them to work while meeting the basic needs of them and their families.
Co-operative-led awareness-raising activities that address issues such as child labour, child marriage, HIV, gender-based violence and alcoholism are also seen as having an impact on the status of women and their livelihood. Many interviewees stated that co-operative members also gain training, skills and experience to which they would not otherwise have access to.
80% of survey respondents said that co-operatives are better than other types of private businesses in advancing gender equality. Almost 75% stated that among the co-operatives that they were most familiar with, women comprised less than 50% of the board members, but over 50% of membership and over 50% of the clientele. These figures suggest that women are among the most involved in and served by co-operatives, but among the least likely to hold high-ranking and decision-making positions.
According to survey respondents, 60% of the co-operatives with which they are most familiar have equality, inclusion and diversity policies or strategies in place. However, almost 50% of respondents said that training sessions relevant to women’s empowerment and gender equality are never held.
Survey respondents and interviewees have also suggested areas for further work to achieve gender equality. Respondents pointed to opportunities in areas of women in leadership, implementation of gender equality strategies, co-operation among co-operatives and the role of government. Interviewees recommended, among others, that co-operatives adopted equality action plans and internal gender equality committees and standards. Other equality measures they suggested included the promotion of spaces and events that enhance the visibility of women and men in the co-operative and subscription to national and international agreements on gender equality.