Brief Overview of Gender Issues in Cooperatives

   This document has been made available in electronic format
           by the International Co-operative Alliance.

                ILO - ICA Training Package 

                 AN ILO - ICA PERSPECTIVE

                   Brief Overview


The values of self-help, mutual responsibility, equality and
equity are held in common by all cooperators. But even though
cooperatives may have policies of equity and equal opportunities
for both women and men, their practices may differ. True equality
may not, in reality, exist. For example, although women
contribute significantly to the agricultural sector and hence to
the national economy of nearly all countries in the world, the
percentage of women members in agricultural cooperatives,
compared to men, is notably lower. Women's participation is also
practically non-existent in cooperatives at decision-making

In order to correct these imbalances and ensure the
sustainability of co-operatives, it is necessary that gender
issues are addressed.

What are gender issues in cooperatives?

Below are some specific gender issues of concern to cooperatives,
and questions that cooperative leaders can ask themselves:

*    Low level of participation in cooperative development and
     particularly that of women. Are efforts being made to
     increase the membership? 

*    Quality of women's participation in cooperatives. Are women
     involved in decision-making processes?

*    Constraints to participation in cooperatives such as
     social, cultural, economic and political restrictions on
     women, their heavy workload, level of education, or the
     selection criteria for members etc. If any of these
     constraints exist, what is being done to address the

*    Access to and control over resources such as credit,
     education, training, production inputs and marketing
     outlets. Do men and women have equal access and control
     over resources?

*    Cooperative training and education programmes. Do these
     programmes address women's needs? Are efforts being made to
     involve women, e.g. are meetings conveniently timed and are
     child care facilities available?

*    Financial and social benefits. Is it advantageous for women
     to form cooperatives? Do cooperatives support income-
     generating activities for women?

*    The possible existence of gender bias. Do gender-blind
     policies, practices and services exist within the

*    Lack of strong cooperative support and commitment to gender
     issues. How are they addressed? Are gender sensitization
     programmes carried out?

Why is gender integration important?

*    Active, equitable participation of members, both men and
     women, is a necessity for sustainable cooperative
     development. Active participation in the cooperative
     context means that members are involved in all the
     functions of a cooperative including planning, decision-
     making, implementation and financial and management

*    Cooperatives are based on the values of self-help, mutual
     responsibility, equality and equity. They practice honesty,
     openness and social responsibility in all their activities.
     In order to enhance the credibility of cooperatives as
     democratic people-based movements in the eyes of the public
     and cooperative members, cooperative values must be
     respected and adhered to.

*    Cooperative principles state that cooperatives are
     democratic organizations without gender discrimination. But
     can they be regarded as truly democratic if women members
     do not have equal access to decision-making levels? If
     women are under-represented or not represented at all in
     decision-making, they may find it difficult to accept the
     legitimacy of decisions taken which do not take their
     interests into consideration.

*    Experience has shown that women in leadership positions are
     more likely to address gender issues and safeguard the
     interests of women. As the cooperative movement worldwide
     incorporates so many women (yet few in management
     positions), it is important that more women are integrated
     into the system.

What are the benefits of gender integration?

*    Women represent fifty per cent of the world's human
     resources. By enhancing women's productive capabilities and
     developing their capacities, cooperatives will benefit from
     this hitherto under-utilized human resource. Many women
     have special skills, for instance, in marketing and

*    Cooperatives will become a stronger economic and more
     influential political force if more women (the invisible
     workforce) are actively involved. 

*    Men and women often tackle and solve problems differently.
     In today's fast changing socio-economic and political
     climate, the need for innovative thinking and creative
     ideas is becoming exceedingly important especially for the
     cooperative sector. By involving more women in decision-
     shaping and decision-making, one will enhance the prospects
     of cooperatives, diversify activities and fortify the
     cooperative movement.

*    In the case of agricultural cooperatives, the involvement
     of more women in economic activities would result in a more
     integrated production of food crop and cash crops. This
     would enhance food security and have a positive effect on
     the environment as intensive monoculture causes soil
     erosion and degradation.

*    Involving more women in cooperatives will broaden the scope
     of cooperatives and improve their social standing. Women's
     and men's priority areas often differ. For example, women
     are often more concerned with social development issues
     which touch the everyday lives of women such as employment,
     health, the environment and children than men. 

*    Many examples have proven that initiatives taken by women
     in cooperatives have accelerated the progress and change of
     their socio-economic situation.

What can be done to integrate more women into cooperatives?
*    The first thing is to include gender on their agendas. The
     formulation of gender-sensitive policies, strategies and
     plans is essential. These should be drawn up in a joint
     effort between women and men.

*    Cooperatives should address equality issues and make a firm
     commitment in their mandate to correct imbalances where
     they exist. For example, cooperatives can state their
     intention to address the problems of women's access to
     credit, land, equipment,
     extension services etc., and/or to take positive measures
     to include more women in their training programmes, in
     decision-making and leadership positions.

Some suggestions

*    Through awareness creation, gender sensitization, education
     and lobbying cooperatives can help remove the obstacles to
     women's equal participation (e.g. membership criteria or
     legal, traditional, financial, attitudinal constraints).

*    Through training and education programmes which are
     sensitive to women needs, cooperatives can help strengthen
     women's capacities and capabilities, resulting in their
     increased self-confidence and enabling them to participate
     more fully in decision-making and assume leadership

*    Cooperatives can consult and involve women when decisions
     are being taken, particularly those regarding women or
     which are in women's interests.

*    Cooperatives can review their policies and plans
     periodically to ensure that they are gender-sensitive?
     Cooperatives can focus on gender in their action plans.

*    Cooperatives can establish "gender committees" or units
     whose tasks can for example be to identify gender-related
     problems; to ensure that gender awareness training
     programmes are carried out; to be responsible for gender
     analysis in programme planning etc. It should be noted here
     that by establishing a special unit or office for gender
     issues or programmes, one risks that the gender issue
     becomes a side-issue that has been "taken care of" and that
     women continue to be marginalized in mainstream activities.
     A gender unit must therefore be part of mainstream
     activities or have direct access to policy and decision-
     making levels. 

*    Cooperatives can use their national organizations and
     networks to collect gender disaggregated data and help
     identify different types of projects focused to women's
     needs which can help them increase their income-earning
     capacities and alleviate their work loads. For example,
     they can investigate how much time men and women spend on
     various chores and activities and how this fits in with
     potential and economically viable and sustainable
     cooperative activities.

This note has been prepared for the information of participants
of the introductory session on gender issues in cooperatives
entitled, "Two hours on Gender Issues in Cooperatives", published
by the International Labour Office and the International Co-
operative Alliance.  For more information, please contact:

Cooperative Branch                 International Co-operative 
International Labour Office        Alliance (ICA)
4, Route des Morillons             15 Route des Morillons
CH-1211 Geneva 11                  1218 Grand Saconnex, Geneva
Switzerland                        Switzerland
tel + 41 22 799 74 42              tel + 41 22 929 88 88
fax + 41 22 799 85 72              fax + 41 22 798 41 22

December, 1995