Co-ops and the SDGs: No.5, gender equality

‘Women’s actions are not as visible as they should be to make them protagonists in co-operative history’

We speak to María Eugenia Pérez Zea, president of the Colombian Association of Cooperatives (ASCOOP) and chair of the ICA’s Gender Equality Committee

Who is involved in the ICA’s Gender Equality Committee? How do you coordinate with all the regions within your remit? 

The Gender Equality Committee is made up of the organisations that have asked to be involved. Participation is optional for members – and those who wish to be on the committee must submit an application. The executive committee is elected every four years and is composed of a president, two vice presidents and four other members. 

María Eugenia Pérez Zea

What are the most urgent issues that need to be addressed to empower women in the co-operative movement?

The members of the ICA’s Gender Equality Committee have drawn up a plan regarding these issues: 

  • Co-operatives must be aware of the importance of gender equality committees within organisations.
  • They must allocate budget to gender equality committees and support, uphold and integrate their work into the organisation.
  • The international executive committee has also defined a number of work streams – such as gender violence (which occurs in every continent) and issues concerning research and data (which are needed to develop policies that enable us to work on gender equality).
  • Budget needs to be allocated for a range of action and activities to enable presence and representation, such as participating in national and international events – as well as addressing other visibility issues when it comes to adopting gender equality regulations.

To empower women, we need to give them training that allows them to assume leadership. It is important that they have economic autonomy, and that they are recognised as people with power within the co-operative movement. It’s also important that they begin to operate in the different spaces within co-operatives. 

What have co-operatives achieved so far in the fight for gender equality?

We have made significant progress, as more and more women are not only in membership, but also in management positions. However, there is still
a long way to go. There are several co-operatives that have given women irrelevant leadership positions within their management structures. 

The fact that women are visible in organisations is an enormous step. We now occupy significant positions as members of the board of directors, chairs of the board or of control bodies such as monitoring boards or trustees. 

What are the obstacles for co-ops seeking to achieve progress regarding gender equality?

One of the most difficult obstacles is people not being aware of what gender equality really means. Gender equality is not just having lots of women working in an organisation – it’s ensuring that women and men have equal opportunities and that we are qualified in the same way to be able to access both administrative and managerial positions. 

We must achieve equity before we can achieve equality. Equity must be achieved, not only in the same access to offers and services, but also to leadership opportunities and to the possibility of participating in different areas of a co-operative. 

Women’s actions need to be visible. We all know that we are in the co-operative movement, but women’s actions are not as visible as they should be to make them protagonists in co-operative history. Generating that awareness has been one of the most difficult things. But once that awareness has been achieved, it must be institutionalised.
It must form the foundation of co-op life, with the intention of working towards equality between men and women – and to govern and participate in administrative and associative action on equal terms. 

In short, it’s about applying and bringing to life each of the co-operative principles. That’s how we can achieve equality, but first of all we need women’s actions within co-operatives to be made visible, and for this, men and women have to be aware of the need to work together.