Can co-operatives empower women?

Gender equality is a key factor in socioeconomic and geopolitical growth, delegates at the International Summit of Cooperatives in Quebec were told.

Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canadian minister of international development, said the co-operative model helped bring this about by increasing benefits for community, enabling flexibility and boosting innovation.

Ms Bibeau has been in her role for less than a year but has already visited co-operative projects in Vietnam, Burkina Faso and Colombia, where she found women in co-ops building better lives for themselves and their families.

Women are also important actors in Canada’s development policies, she said, adding that the government was seeking to engage them as beneficiaries and partners.

“They have to be involved directly,” she told the Summit. “In terms of health, education, green energy and good governance, we prioritise projects that place women and children at the core.

“Local women organisations know what are the priorities to enable them to contribute fully to community. I know the co-op movement can propose innovative solutions in this respect and reduce poverty.”

Judy Ziewacz, president and chief executive of NCBA Clusa in the USA, said women had helped grow certain sectors, such as natural food co-ops.

Some sectors, such as housing and healthcare, were more likely to have women leaders than others, such as agriculture, which was male-dominated, she said – but issues which used to be seen as related to women are now becoming mainstream.

Ms Ziewacz stressed that empowerment did not occur simply in boardrooms. “When care givers form their own co-ops, women become empowered over working conditions and engagement,” she said.

Fatimah Mohamed Arshad, board member at the Malaysian National Co-operative Movement (ANGKASA), said co-ops were a vehicle for the important task of helping women improve their entrepreneurial skills.

And by empowering women, co-ops were accelerating their role in the country’s economic development, she added.

Moroccan minister Fatima Marouan described how a national initiative for human development included empowering women and strengthening co-ops. She referred to the role of artisan co-ops helping women create and sell products.

The session also looked at how to encourage more businesses to promote gender equality. Anne-Marie Hubert, managing partner, Quebec, for Ernst & Young, argued that unless societies progressed it was difficult to advance changes, in spite of favourable policies.

Women taking difficult decisions are often called names, while men are seen as acting like strong leaders, she said, and warned: “The culture needs to change in organisations as well.”

The panel agreed that co-ops were vehicles for women’s empowerment. Ms Bibeau said co-ops were crucial for international development projects because they worked with communities.

Ms Ziewacz added: “We have many examples of how women have been empowered by co-ops and helped diversify sectors. The advancement of women is best served in our democratic government, our institutions and our co-operatives.”