International Women’s Day – co-operatives are making our members lives happier
On International Women’s Day (March 8th), Rhian Edwards of the Wales Co-operative Centre explains how co-operatives are helping to empower and advance the economic development of women, both here in Wales and throughout the world.
Imagine a business model where there was a way for women across the world to improve their living conditions and those of their families and communities. Imagine this model providing women with a route towards self-empowerment and development, allowing them to play greater roles in society and in the economy. Now, imagine no more. Not because it’s too much to hope for, but because such a model already exists.
Co-operatives in Wales and across the globe are improving livelihoods for millions of women and are serving as avenues by which women can exercise their right to participation.
Defined as businesses run by groups of people working together for the benefit of their members, co-operatives have social as well as economic goals and distribute profits to members or re-invest them. Co-operatives provide women with employment opportunities – and this means decent work opportunities, not just jobs, many offering training and development programmes. And because co-operatives make important decisions through the principle of one person one vote, women always get a say.
In many developing countries, co-operatives enable women to be adequately nourished, sheltered and educated, but also to have some financial independence and a voice in decision making. They can also give communities hope.
Take the story of 49-year-old Justine Watalunga of the Gumutindo coffee co-operative on the eastern border of Uganda. When you ask this hard-working mother of six and coffee farmer about life before she became involved in the co-operative, she paints a bleak picture:
“It was a very difficult time for women. Women would work hard in the fields, doing most of the manual labour, carrying the beans to the trade store, but it was the man who would receive payment for the coffee and would not share it with his family but use it mainly for drinking. After this there was often no money left for food, clothing education and families suffered greatly.
“Domestic abuse was common and people were not happy, families were not happy. Women were also excluded from ownership of land so women had no economic means of their own.”
These days it’s a very different story. In the 30 years since it was established, the Gumutindo co-operative has improved the life of women in the region immeasurably.
Family income from coffee is now being used for education, clothing, and saving. There is less domestic abuse, marriages are happier, and children enjoy more stable family environments. The co-operative has helped unite women in the community and helped them realise their value.
Justine has been elected as Treasurer to her local Konokoyi Co-operative Society and is working hard to demonstrate the financial benefits of being a member to the farming community. Transparency of the price paid for the coffee is important to encourage trust.
The co-operative’s members decided to use the social premium from Fairtrade sales to build facilities such as a school for local children and orphans and a support centre for local women suffering from Aids and HIV. They are also investing in adapting to the challenges of climate change by finding different ways to grow coffee.
As Justine puts it:
“Because of the work of the co-operative, women are now free – free to think, free to act and free to propose plans to their husbands about how income from the coffee should be used. Women also have close relationships with the other women in the community and share ideas and learning to help make them a stronger united group.”
“Co-operatives are so important to keeping communities together and helping them to grow. They help keep the price of coffee stable and high for the farmers, they offer training to farmers about climate change and how to look after their farms, and the social premiums we get from Fairtrade helps us build facilities for our community which are desperately needed. The co-operative is helping give our members a future, co-operatives are making our community members lives happier.”
But it’s not only in rural Africa that co-operatives that are making a real difference to the lives and prospects of women and their families. Here in Wales, co-operatives generate more than £1 billion in income a year and offer a tried and tested way of developing a more sustainable economy while tackling social and gender inequality.
42-year-old Andrina Davies from Caerphilly is a great example of how being involved in a co-operative can enhance employment prospects for women, particularly those that have needed to take a career break to care for young children.
Andrina was looking to return to work after a decade of raising her children. Worried about her lack of recent experience in the workplace, she volunteered with a local credit union, which helped increase her confidence and skills, and provided her with an opportunity to get used to an office environment again.
Luckily, an administration position came up in the credit union where she was volunteering and, following an interview, Andrina was appointed.
Fast forward a few years years and Andrina is now the manager of Caerphilly-based Smart Money Credit Union, where she has helped to increase membership from a few hundred to over 3,500 adult members.
Smart Money Credit Union is a not-for profit financial organisation that offers a secure place to save and borrow at a low rate of interest. Its products include Christmas savings accounts, general savings accounts, junior accounts, child trust funds, white goods, loans and pre payment cards.
Andrina says that she would not be where she is today were it not for the opportunities working in a credit union co-operative has given her:
“Since joining I have grown as a person, developed my skills and knowledge through various training opportunities and I have also gained more confidence socially. During my early years with the movement the organisation was flexible as I was the main carer to my children; this made the transition from home to work easier.
“Being a part of the co-operative makes me feel valued because I am helping my community by providing affordable credit and promoting thrift amongst our members.
“Before I knew about the credit union members of my family were using high-interest doorstep lenders and slot TV companies and they didn’t think they were able to save. This has changed and now they use the credit union for both saving and borrowing as I do myself.”
Justine’s and Andrina’s are two very different stories. But what both of these women show is that co-operatives work for women. With an egalitarian ethos, participatory decision-making, common ownership and commitment to goals beyond the motive of profit, co-operatives are expanding opportunities for women in local economies and societies throughout the world.
On International Women’s Day, against a backdrop of difficult economic challenges, we would do well to remember the value of co-operatives to women across the world, particularly those in vulnerable communities.