Feminism in the 21st century: What does it mean for women cooperators?

A seminar on cooperatives and feminism explored how different sectors are working to promote gender equality

Around the world, cooperatives in different sectors are working to promote gender equality in their enterprises and communities.

Some of these case studies were showcased on Saturday 12 October, ahead of the International Cooperative Alliance International Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, during a seminar on cooperatives and feminism in the 21st century. The seminar was organised by the Gender Equality Committee of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA-GEC), which serves as a forum for the discussion and exchange of ideas on issues related to gender equality.

“Feminism defends the principle of equal rights between women and men to achieve a society in which no one is left behind,” said Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea (Colombia), Chair of the committee. She said cooperatives, as enterprises based on a set of values and principles, enable all voices to be heard, and argued that the feminist vision could inspire cooperatives to fully apply their values and principles.

ICA President Ariel Guarco (Argentina) added that in a world that still presents great inequalities when it comes to the role of women in society, “it is fundamental that the cooperative movement generates strategies to facilitate and encourage their participation not only in cooperatives, but also within the public and political life.” The ICA is committed to promoting equality, he said, arguing that feminist movements and cooperatives can work together to drive change.

Presenting research on the role of coops in driving gender equality in Africa, Prof Esther Gicheru from the Cooperative University of Kenya said that while women make up 43% of membership in coops across the regions, they are responsible for only 25% of leadership positions.

Prof Esther Gicheru from the Cooperative University of Kenya

“For the sustainability of cooperatives, it is necessary that gender issues are addressed in order to correct the existing imbalances,” she said. In Kenya the national union for saving and credit cooperatives (SACCOs) is working with small cooperatives, helping them access training, education services and loans to address any liquidity issues.

This means women members of these SACCOs can build their own homes, start businesses or pay for their children’s education.

But Prof Gicheru added that more work needs to be done, to promote women from management to leadership roles.

“Most people in cooperatives do not intentionally discriminate but that is what happens if they do not have awareness and skills. For cooperatives, good intentions are not enough, policies have to be implemented,” she said, adding that men and women could work together to come up with successful strategies to address gender issues in their cooperatives. Such initiatives include introducing quotas for enhancing women’s representation at board level, running trainings for women and leading gender equality campaigns targeting both men and women.

Nandini Azad (India), Chair of the Gender Equality Committee for the Asia-Pacific region, talked about the work of the Indian Cooperative Network for Women.

She wants to see more women in cooperatives, pointing out that only 20% of coop members in the Asia-Pacific region are women. 

The network was set up by the Working Women’s Forum in 1981, in the aftermath of floods which devastated the country. The forum enables women on very low incomes to learn about the cooperative model as well as support each other and compensate for the lack of social security in India. It supports two organisations – the Indian Cooperative Network for Women (ICNW, a group of savings and credit cooperatives) and the National Union of Working Women (NUWW, a trade union).

The first saving and credit cooperative was set up in 1981, with in an initial membership of 2,500 women; each contributed Rs.20, the equivalent of US $3.

Since then, the network has grown to include 14 branches in three states, reaching over 3,800 villages with a total membership of 6 million and a 99.17% repayment rate.

“The model is based on building capital at the base,” said Dr Azad.

The loans enable women to cover their debt and grow their enterprises. The cooperative also addresses the issue of caste, bringing together women of different castes. Most women members are from lower castes, which means that other caste members would not sit, eat or dance with them. Bringing them together as members of the network means they get to break these social and cultural boundaries. They can also access training and research programmes.

Furthermore, if the women have problems in personal lives, they can raise them with the group who can report problems to the police. Through the cooperative’s micro insurance products, they can access maternity benefits and health insurance.

Workshop participants also learnt from Marjaana Saarikoski from Finland’s SOK Group, the country’s largest cooperative. While women in Finland have access to higher education (60% of university graduates are women), they are still not represented when it comes to leadership roles. Within the SOK Group, there are 19 regional cooperatives, only one of which is led by a woman chief executive. An average of 60% of members are women of SOK.

“We aim to share ideas about how to have a larger share of women in leadership positions,” said Ms Saarikoski.

A lawyer specialising in administrative and cooperative law, Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea has been with Coomeva for 18 years, and is the first woman to chair the cooperative. Under her leadership, Coomeva started developing a gender policy in 2014. Rather than develop a new methodology, the cooperative used an existing certification scheme called Equipares – developed by Colombia’s government with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“There is no sustainable development without women,” she said, adding that the contribution of women to development had not been valued, which “has been an obstacle to development itself.” Coomeva operates across various sectors, including banking, health and insurance.

Equipares was designed to help businesses address inequalities in the workplace, promote good labour practices and policies and reduce gender gaps. Six Coomeva enterprises have obtained the certification so far.

They are now among Colombia’s 20 companies acknowledged for good practices. Improvements include closing the salary gap between men and women and offering benefits for maternity and paternity to balance work and family life.

Job descriptions are examined to make sure they are not male or female specific, and the cooperative has been running a campaign to tackle stereotypes and encourage collaboration with taglines such as “Both of us can and both of us deserve it” and “Together we work better”.

“Discrimination starts with gender, religion, race, and so on – but these are just examples. It’s not a limited list – that is very important,” said Jean Louis Bancel (France), president of Cooperatives Europe and member of the Principles Committee of the ICA Board. 

The committee also addressed the question of women cooperatives and decided that restricting membership to one gender is not discriminatory, as long as these cooperatives exist to fight gender discrimination.

“We understand that maybe sometimes it will be a time in different countries for a different way of working,” said Mr Bancel. “It is important to understand that if ever there are changes in society, these cooperatives will have to change. They can’t turn to be an instrument of domination of someone by someone else.”

The committee also looked at ways to engage people of different ages. There is a role for both young people and experienced cooperators, said Mr Bancel, and both groups should seek to engage with each other.

While equality is enshrined within the cooperative principles, cooperatives should be wary of lagging behind other enterprises. In France, Coop FR, the national apex body for cooperatives, has developed a framework which encourages the sector to ensure that no gender accounts for more than 60% of board members.

Ensuring this balance is maintained can be a challenge for cooperatives active in sectors where women make up only a small percentage of members, such as agriculture. Mr Bancel poined to the work of Crédit Coopératif, his own cooperative, to promote equality. A cooperative bank, Crédit Coopératif adopted a policy to ensure men and women in similar roles were paid the same salary.

Similarly, women on maternity leave struggled for promotion once they returned to work. Mr Bancel said this reluctance to promote women was present among women leaders themselves – which means that discrimination can happen regardless of a leader’s gender.

Alexandra Wilson

Alexandra Wilson (Canada), a member of the ICA’s global board, noted that although some cooperatives are set up to address inequality, once they achieve success they can become complacent. She argued that the democratic nature of cooperatives means they are, by default, conservative. For example, a joint stock company can take proactive steps to address imbalances on its board because it select board members. “They can select women on board because it improves their reputation with customers,” she said. Cooperatives may be unable to do the same.

Sharing ideas and exchanging successful initiatives is the key to driving change, agreed the participants.

“We already have the models, the ideas, it’s all about communicating more and exchanging views,” said Ms Saarikoski.

“Today other sectors from the economy who are not cooperatives themselves are taking on these topics with great impetus, talking about the environment or the UN, others do it even more strongly and they take faster decisions,” said Ms Perez Zea. The committee can serve as a platform for those wishing to exchange ideas and learn from each other, she added.

For all of our coverage from Kigali, click here.