Chapter XV - Women and Sustainable Development

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

  Contribution of Co-operative Enterprises and the International
     Co-operative Movement to Implementation of UN AGENDA 21:
       Programme of Action for Sustainable Development 

                     Prepared jointly by
             the International Co-operative Alliance
                      the United Nations
  Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development

                 Geneva and New York, April 1995

        For information purposes only. Not an official
   document of the United Nations and not officially edited.

                        CHAPTER XV


    As part of this series of background information papers the
United Nations Secretariat, jointly with the International Co-
operative Alliance, prepared in March 1995 a study of the
contribution of co-operative business enterprise and the
international co-operative movement to achievement of the
strategic objectives of the Draft Platform of Action for the
Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality,
Development and Peace, to be held at Beijing, China, from 4 to
15 September 1995. 167/ The reader is referred to this paper for
a more detailed consideration of co-operative enterprise and
women's advancement. The text which follows extracts and develops
from this paper in respect to the particular relevance of co-
operative enterprise and the international co-operative movement
to women's role in sustainable development.

A.  The relevance of women's function in rural economies

     The task of advancing women to full enjoyment of their human
rights, including full equality with men, is of the greatest
significance for the achievement of sustainable development.  
Women have economic and social functions which are of direct
relevance:  firstly, in both developed and developing market
economies, but particularly in the latter, women occupy a central
function in agriculture and forestry, including production of
wood for fuel and energy, and in the use and management of
natural resources for primary production. This was the case even
in stable indigenous societies. With the marginalization and
destabilization of many rural communities in recent decades
impoverishment and feminization of rural economies has become

   In these conditions it is only by improving the status of
women - ensuring that they are able to establish economically
viable enterprises; to operate as legally recognized economic
persons;  to have access to land and water resources; to obtain
technical, organizational and financial support for
entrepreneurial activities; to have access to markets and
reasonable returns upon their labour - that rural economies can
be restored to balance, viability, subsidiarity and hence

   For women engaged in the rural economy a co-operative
enterprise is a particularly suitable organizational means
whereby they may seek their ambitions.  Often it is the only
available and effective means for increasing their economic and
social well-being, condition and status in the community and
wider society.  A co-operative enterprise provides women who are
members better control of their economic environment.  It makes
possible a combination of their individual resources, however
limited these may be, so that these resources become
operationally more effective. It provides the organizational
vehicle whereby common resources may be managed efficiently.  
It ensures that returns accrue only to the women who are member-
owners, remain under their joint control and are used primarily
for reinvestment. Membership of a co-operative enterprise
establishes a legal status, thereby protecting common assets and
facilitating operation in the formal market, including access to
credit, for which it constitutes a guarantee. It provides access
to formal auditing, thereby encouraging confidence among members,
suppliers and customers.

   Women's individual membership in rural production co-
operatives, and as entrepreneurs in rural supply and marketing
and rural credit and saving co-operatives is a means of economic
empowerment of the greatest importance. Membership in co-
operatives makes possible the creation and protection of
productive employment and hence contributes to the eradication,
alleviation or avoidance of poverty. It is one of the principal
means whereby many millions of women are able to integrate
effectively in society.  Not only are women furnished with the
material conditions and the economic base necessary for equitable
participation in local community and broader society, but they
are able to gain self-respect and dignity and to move from a
position labelled negative in the perception of wider society to
one labelled positive. Their community's recognition of their
real contribution to prosperity eases tensions and reduces any
justification for discrimination.

    The involvement of women in rural co-operative movements is
increasing in incidence and intensity. Success has been achieved
even in the cases of the poorest women, having virtually no
assets, in poor health, illiterate, subject to multiple forms of
discrimination. For example, in India the Self Employed Women's
Association in Ahmedabad, Gujerat, a women's trade union, has
very successfully used co-operatives as a form of economic
organization which empowers the women who are members of the
union. One of the Association's first acts was to establish a
women's co-operative bank which has operated effectively,
providing services to its members however small their incomes. 
By 1991 the Association had promoted a number of women's co-
operatives in agricultural production and land
reclamation. 168/

    In India also women have participated in, and benefitted
from, the highly successful AMUL system of milk co-operatives
which have expanded during the last three decades from a small
local enterprise in Amand, Gujarat, to constitute a national
system made up of 57,000 co-operative societies and 6,000,000
members, most of whom are women.  Because of the efficiency of
this co-operative system numerous rural women have been able to
move out of poverty. 169/

    Throughout Africa, in many parts of south-east Asia, and in
Central and Southern America, other women have been able to
benefit in a similar manner from membership in production and
supply and marketing co-operatives in rural regions. Co-operative
movements have been able to provide them with technical
assistance much more appropriate to their needs and conditions
than governmental extension systems. For example, the Indian
Farmers' Fertiliser Co-operative Ltd., the largest fertiliser
producer and supply co-operative in Asia,with 30,000 agricultural
producers as members, recognizes the significance of women's
functions in agriculture, and has developed special training
programmes for women in all aspects of farm management and
operations. 170/

     In a paper submitted to the International Conference on the
Environment and Sustainable Growth: the Key Role of Farmers, held
from 16-18 October 1991 at Reykjavik, Iceland, and organized by
the International Federation of Agricultural Producers and the
Government of Iceland, the Deputy Director-General of the Co-
operative Development Centre in Egypt noted that the Egyptian
Central Agricultural Co-operative Union recognized women as the
main agricultural producers and environmental managers, and
supported their greater access to credit, extension, training and
technology. It acknowledged that it was necessary to enable women
to use modern agricultural systems and ease their domestic daily
work load and to increase their participation in decision making
in relation to agricultural production and environmental affairs.

    Of major significance for rural women has been the
opportunity provided by membership of savings and credit co-
operatives and rural co-operative banks. These are often the only
institutions able to provide security in the deposit of savings,
however small these may be. They are the only financial
institution likely to provide credit in the small quantities
required by poor rural women for entrepreneurial development,
improvement in the efficiency of the household micro-enterprises
which they manage and operate, and avoidance of disaster
otherwise caused by personal and family emergencies.  Membership
in such co-operatives provides women with a means to escape from
money-lenders, and empowers them within their families and

    Savings and credit co-operatives in many countries have
introduced programmes specifically designed to meet the financial
needs of their women members. In addition women - usually
resident in the same local community or engaged in the same
occupation - have set up their own credit and savings co-
operative.  For example, women who live in temporary shelter on
the pavements in central Bombay have set up their own credit
union as a means to save money and as a source of small amounts
of credit, thereby avoiding the rates offered by money lenders,
which are 240 per cent per year.  Most members make a small cash
deposit or loan repayment each day. In one such savings and
credit co-operative the equivalent of US $ 50,000 has been saved
by 600 member families.  The co-operative makes emergency loans
of $ 25, and loans of up to $ 250 for setting up a business.  
Establishment of this and other co-operatives is promoted by the
Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, funded by the
Canadian Co-operative Association. 171/ 

   Numerous other types of co-operative are supportive of women
in carrying out their multiple occupations in adverse
circumstances: for example, housing, health, child-care,
electricity, heating, telephone, water and sanitation and
community development co-operative enterprises in which they are
able to be members and effectively participate in the
determination of business goals and practices.

   The aggregate impact of the economic empowerment provided by
all of these forms of co-operative organization is to help women
escape from poverty, to alleviate the poverty in which they find
themselves, and to help women avoid falling into poverty once
they have escaped, or in the face of changing macroeconomic
conditions which tend to immizerate additional populations.

   By reducing poverty, the pressure of poor communities on the
natural environment is also reduced. By integrating women into
a wider movement which is itself committed to achieving
sustainable development women are offered opportunities for a
more effective participation in all the activities which make
them key actors in the process of transformation. Co-operative
members are inherently concerned with matters of sustainability,
as has been pointed out in the Introduction to this paper: women
are more acutely aware and concerned than men because of their
central functions in production and reproduction.

B.  The relevance of women's participation in urban economies

    Many of the points made in respect to the relevance of co-
operative enterprise for rural women's contribution to
sustainable development apply also to urban women. Here also a
further central aspects of women's function in most societies has
a key relevance. This is women's responsibility for the
management and operation of the micro-enterprises that make up
the household sector.  As has been seen above, co-operative
enterprise contributes very significantly in many countries to
the efficiency of such micro-enterprises, and hence to
improvement in women's condition arising both from reduction in
the efforts required and to improved status within the household,
as well as opportunities for activity outside the household.

    Because of their central involvement, women make up the
greater proportion of the members of wholesale and retail
distribution co-operatives, as well as housing, utilities, social
services, day-care and other related co-operatives.  Women
members of such co-operatives have exercised a major influence
upon the adjustment of business policies, stimulating concern to
provide environmentally friendly products, operations, waste
control and further consumer education.  Women have used their
mass membership of such co-operatives as a strong economic base
for lobbying for sustainable development and for establishing
partnerships with consumer, women's and environmental movements.

    Experienced gained within the co-operative movement has
enhanced many women's access to power structures outside the
movement, not only within local communities, where membership in
itself, and particularly fulfilment of responsibilities as board
member, supervisor or manager, adds to respect.  Familiarity with
management and decision-making enhances women's capabilities in
local and national politics, and many women in politics have
gained their entry into political life through the co-operative
movement, which in many countries enjoys significant political
power.   Many co-operatives in which women predominate among
members actively support, as well as provide an economically
secure base for, women's participation in political life.  For
example, the Seikatsu Club Consumers' Co-operative in Japan - the
ninth largest co-operative in the country in terms of membership,
a high proportion of which are women, encourages political
action.   In 1993 33 of its members were elected to municipal
office under the campaign slogan "Political reform from the
kitchen". 172/

    Co-operative movements have succeeded in transforming women
members into nuclei for the further promotion of women's
advancement in families and communities.  For example, in Central
America national co-operative movements in all countries, with
support by the sub-regional office of the International Co-
operative Alliance in Costa Rica, have established women's
committees which have introduced women's programmes and have
stimulated genuine confrontation with the issue of women's
advancement throughout the co-operative movements in these
countries. 173/

    The increased participation of women in public life
encouraged by the co-operative movement is a matter of key
significance for the achievement of sustainable development, for
women are in general more committed to the concept than men, both
on a personal level, and because men, whatever their personal
views, are already closely integrated within the societal systems
which are responsible for the current non-sustainable form of
relationship between society and the natural environment.  
Women, coming into full participation in economic, social and
political structures for the first time, are able to adopt new
initiatives in respect to sustainable development.


167/ This background paper is available from the United Nations
     Secretariat, New York, Room DC2-1348, Fax: +1 212 963 3062.
     It is also available on the ICA/UWCC Gopher under ICA &
     UN/ICA in UN Conferences/Fourth World Conference on Women.
168/ Kalima Rose, Where women are leaders: the SEWA movement in
     India, London, Zed Books, 1992, pp. 202-243.
169/ K.K.Taimni, Creating a favourable climate and conditions 
     for co-operative development in Asia, Geneva, International
     Labour Office, 1994, p. 47.
170/ Communication received from ICA, March 1994.
171/ Communication received from ICA, April 1995
172/ Communication received from ICA, March 1994.
173/ Communication received from ICA Regional Office for Central
     America and the Caribbean, May 1994.