The Role of the ICA in the Advancement of Women in Co-operatives

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         July, 1996

Source : Review of International Co-operation Vol.89, No
1/1996, 42-51.

          The Role of the ICA in the Advancement
               of Women in Co-operatives
                 by MariaElena Chavez*

ICA and the United Nations
1995 was a year of major activity for the ICA, for not only
was it the year in which the ICA celebrated its Centennial,
but it was also a year in which the ICA had the opportunity to
influence international policies and highlight the
contribution of co-operatives.  

Two major United Nations conferences were held in 1995 - the
World Summit for Social Development and the Fourth World
Conference on Women.  These presented opportunities for the
co-operative movement to highlight its contributions to
productive employment, eradication of poverty, enhancement of
social integration and the advancement of women and have
co-operatives recognized by the international community.  ICA
participated in the preparatory meetings and the official
conferences.  It presented and/or circulated statements,
prepared informational material on its activities and
highlighted the work being done by the ICA and its member

The documents adopted at both of these conferences by UN
member states (Governments) recognized the significant
contribution of the co-operative movement and called on
governments and the international community to adopt policies
that support and promote co-operatives.  

With regard to the Fourth World Conference on Women, the
Platform for Action, the document regrouping the
recommendations for action adopted in Beijing contained nine
references to co-operatives noting how co-operatives could
improve the situation of women especially with regard to
co-operatives' ability to strengthen women's economic capacity
and facilitate women's equal access to resources including
credit and employment. This in part was the result of the work
of the ICA and its regional offices which mobilized
co-operatives to contribute to the discussions on how to
promote the advancement of women in economic, political and
social spheres. ICA brought its voice to the regional meetings
organized by the United Nations in preparation to Beijing and
reiterated its position in Beijing where Raija Itkonen, a
member of the ICA Board and Focal Point for Gender Issues for
ICA Europe, addressed the participants of the Fourth World
Conference on Women. 

A Start in the Right Direction
ICA was able in Beijing and at the World Summit for Social
Development to sensitize governments and the international
community and more importantly provide tools for its members
to establish policy dialogues, and facilitate contact with UN
and bilateral organizations for technical assistance.

However, now that the contribution of co-operatives has been
highlighted, we must show what we have been able to achieve in
these critical areas and the partnerships we have been able to
establish to implement the recommendations. 

Follow-up to the Beijing Meeting
Six months after the Beijing Conference, the United Nations
began reviewing the process for implementation at the 40th
session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Governments
reported on their national plans of action; NGOs reported on
their activities and urged governments, multi-lateral and
bi-lateral organizations to increase the pace of their
implementation.  Specific discussions were held on women and
poverty, women and the media and sharing family

ICA attended the meetings of the Commission and circulated a
joint ICA/United Nations report on the ways which the
co-operative movement was beginning its follow-up, excerpts of
which are included below.  Given the commitment made by
members of the ICA to increasing the participation of women in
co-operatives, we expect that many more activities will be
undertaken.  We plan on reporting again to the UN on these
activities in the coming year.  In this way ICA will continue
to be part of the process of contributing to the advancement
of women within or associated with the co-operative movement. 

Gender Equality: Strategic Concerns
At the Centenary Congress of the International Co-operative
Alliance, international and national co-operative
organizations adopted a resolution on "Gender Equality in
Co-operatives".  This resolution established gender equality
as a global priority for the ICA, noting that "shared
influence and shared responsibilities between women and men
are keys to co-operative excellence".

Women and Poverty
Co-operatives are able to address the feminization of poverty
by providing opportunities to women to improve their economic
situation as members of co-operatives or as employees of co-
operatives. Co-operatives can empower women and raise not only
their own standard of living, but that of the communities in
which they live. 
Women are participating in a large number of co-operatives as
members, thus enabling them to benefit from income (return on
capital) and a wide variety of services and goods at a cost
and quality that many women would not otherwise be able to

In Europe and North America women are participating in
co-operatives at equal rates. In Africa, participation in
mixed co-operatives remains low due to cultural and legal
barriers such as land ownership, access to credit, etc; for
example, in Zambia in 1995 it was estimated that 23% of the
membership of the Zambia Co-operative Alliance was made up of
women, however, in rural areas women were participating in
mixed co-operatives at lower levels. In Uganda, 25% of the
co-operative membership was made of women.  In Japan, 90% of
the 17.3 million members of the co-operative movement are
women. In Kuwait, 45% of the members of the Union of Consumer
Co-operative Societies are women 1. In Central America in
1992,it was estimated that 30% of members of co-operatives are
women, with 75% of those women participating in savings and
credit co-operatives 2.  This figure is increasing.
Co-operatives constitute a form of enterprise which is
particularly adapted to women who often lack access to
productive resources.  Many women opt for the co-operative
form of enterprise where they become worker-owners and form
women only co-operatives. Many small-scale co-operatives have
been established by women who seek to increase their incomes. 
The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in Gujarat,
India, has organised women's co-operatives in artisanal,
land-based, livestock, trading and service sectors. These
co-operatives are providing opportunities to unemployed women
to obtain sustainable work and income. In Uganda, rural women
have regrouped form agricultural, handicraft and savings and
credit co-operatives. The Watermark Association of Artisans, a
co-operative which markets crafts for rural women (many of
whom had been battered wives), is one example of how the
co-operative form of business enterprise has provided rural
women in North Carolina, United States, access to an
income-generating activity. In the United Kingdom women
entrepreneurs have established numerous small scale workers'
co-operatives, and in Finland and Sweden new co-operatives are
being formed including supply co-operatives, village,
development, service, communication and publishing
co-operatives, many of which on the initiative of women as a
response to growing unemployment.

Access to Productive Employment
As employers, co-operatives provide productive employment
opportunities for both men and women; it is estimated that
approximately half of the workforce in co-operatives are
women.  As in other sectors, co-operative have only recently
begun collecting gender disaggregate statistics.  However, the
few figures that do exist are those for East and Western
Europe and illustrate the capacity of the co-operative
movement to create productive employment for women.

In Finland, 85% of the employees in Eka Corporation, a
co-operative in the retail trade sector, are women. In the
Japanese Consumers' Co-operative Union 80% of part-time
employees are women. In Lithuania, 69% of the total number of
employees working in the co-operative movement as a whole are
women. Over 58% of the employees of the Malaysian Co-operative
Insurance Society are women. In Sweden at the Folksam
insurance co-operative, 53% of the total number of employees
are women. In Russia 73% (1.1 million) employees of the
consumer co-operative movement are women. In Switzerland, one
of the largest consumer co-operatives, Coop Suisse, reported
in December, 1994 that 53% of its employees were women. In
Turkey, the largest agricultural co-operative, Taris, reports
that 17.66% of its employees are women. In Ukraine women
account for 71% of the total number of employees in the
co-operative movement from all sectors. In the United Kingdom,
60% of the members of the credit unions affiliated to the
Association of British Credit Unions Ltd. are women.

Access to Credit 
Financial co-operatives are of special value to the poor,
especially for women. They can operate in areas not served by
commercial banks, and where public-sector credit programmes
are insufficient. Savings and credit co-operatives ("credit
unions") and co-operative banks often provide the only secure
institution for the deposit of savings - however small these
may be. They provide an affordable means for concentrating and
re-circulating local capital by providing credit for
entrepreneurial use and for improvements in the household
sector. Moreover, because these co-operatives are owned by
their members, costs are kept to the minimum and services and
procedures adapted to their particular needs and
circumstances. Such co-operatives allow the poor to escape
from the control exerted by private money lenders. In both
developed and developing market economies, governments support
financial co-operative development in poor communities,
acknowledging their unique capacity for capital mobilization
and appropriate investment.

Co-operative banks have taken the lead in introducing
gender-sensitive services. In some countries - notably India -
women have set up and operate their own co-operative banks,
that is banks whose owners are the account holders. 

Savings and credit co-operatives or credit unions in many
countries have introduced programmes specifically designed to
meet the financial needs of their women members. There are
many examples of credit unions lending to women who build
small businesses.  Many of these women are able to use the
income from these small businesses to build houses, purchase
land, educate their children, etc.  In numerous countries
women - usually resident in a defined community, or engaged in
a similar occupation - have set up their own savings and
credit co-operatives.

Access to Quality, Low Cost Services
Co-operatives also provide services to women and their
families which ease women's workload and provide them with
opportunities for advancement.

Daycare co-operatives are a form of co-operative which allows
women to reconcile work with family responsibilities.  Daycare
co-operatives exist in many countries throughout the world's
economies.  In the United States, the first child-care
co-operative was established in 1916.  Today, more than 50,000
families send their children to co-operative daycare centres3.
In Sweden more than two-thirds of private daycare centres are
either parental or worker co-operatives daycare services 4.
Daycare co-operatives are functioning in a number of countries
including Canada, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Spain, Philippines,
Trinidad, Tobago, Portugal and the United Kingdom to list just
a few.

Consumer-owned retail co-operatives are able to reduce costs
while simultaneously assuring the adequate provision of
appropriate and high quality goods and services. User-owned
co-operative enterprises contribute significantly to
overcoming conditions which contribute to chronic poverty -
i.e. inadequate housing, fuel, energy, water, sanitation,
infrastructure and essential services. 

Housing co-operatives provide women with access to low-cost,
quality, safe and secure housing.  Housing construction and
maintenance co-operatives often set aside accommodation for
lower-income households, (including single mothers and other
female heads of households).

Education and Training
One of the priority issues of the co-operative movement is
enhancing the participation of women in the co-operative
movement necessitating not only specific training programmes
for women, but also gender sensitization training for all
members of the co-operatives.  A recently published joint
International Labour Office/International Co-operative
Alliance training module "Gender Issues in Co-operatives: An
ICA - ILO Perspective"5 is evidence of ICA's commitment to the
raising awareness on gender issues.  The two-hour session is
designed to generate increased gender awareness of
co-operative leaders and policy makers and thereby encourage
the integration of gender issues in co-operative development.

Women and Health
Health co-operatives contribute to improving the health of
women and girls by providing quality health care at reasonable
cost.  Health care co-operatives are prominent in Brazil,
Canada, Israel, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States,
and are known to operate in Argentina, Australia, Benin,
Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, India,
Malaysia, Mongolia, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Poland,
Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, United
Republic of Tanzania and the United Kingdom.

Members of health co-operatives are able to identify their
needs and the appropriate and relevant type of services and
care that will be provided.  Reviews of experience in Canada
and the United States have shown evidence that community and
consumer-sponsored health institutions, such as health
co-operatives provide higher quality care than other health
service delivery organizations, particularly in respect to
promotional and preventive measures, such as the provision of
comprehensive examinations, well-baby care, childhood
immunization and cancer screening 6. This is of particular
interest to women who may wish to introduce specific services
relevant to their life-cycle including reproductive health

Engagement by the co-operative movement in the health and
social care sectors has particular significance for women. 
The emphasis on healthy life-styles and on energetic
preventive measures, which is characteristic of health
co-operatives, includes elements which are most valuable to
women's own health, and also to women's responsibilities for
the health of young children.  The outreach programmes
undertaken by most health and social care co-operatives,
designed to support persons with disabilities and infirm
elderly persons, relieves the pressures upon women, who are
usually the unpaid and unacknowledged care providers.  While
women continue to provide the greater proportion of care, they
are able to do so in improved conditions and with better
recognition, in many cases as members of their own
provider-owned co-operatives. 
In some countries health co-operatives - particularly where
developed from the consumer-owned retail co-operative movement
- are in fact largely a women's movement.  This is the case
with the health co-operatives within the Japanese Consumers'
Co-operative Union, whose members are predominantly women, and
whose prevention and community outreach programmes are
organized very largely through the neighbourhood "han-group"
system, all but a few members of which are women. 

The emphasis given by consumer-owned retail co-operatives, and
increasingly by agricultural production, processing and
marketing co-operatives to improved nutrition is clearly of
particular relevance to women, who retain in most societies
the largest responsibility for final processing and
distribution of food. 

The emphasis given by housing co-operatives to the particular
needs of women, and the appearance of women's own housing
co-operatives, are significant for women's advancement. 
Co-operative insurance enterprises have begun to adjust their
products to meet the particular needs and circumstances of
women members.  

Women and the Economy
Co-operatives have developed policies aimed at increasing the
productivity and commitment of their workforce (i.e. both
members and employees).   Economic sense combined with the
application of the co-operative principle of democracy have
led many co-operatives to analyze how to secure the full and
effective participation of women.  

In advanced market economies, co-operatives have adopted
policies which allow women to better reconcile work with
family responsibilities, while in others "Family Policies" are
being enacted to allow for the sharing of family
responsibilities by men and women.  These are particularly
well developed in the co-operative movements of the Nordic
countries and North America. 

Personnel policies and conditions of work in co-operatives
have been modified to include flexible hours, compressed work
schedules, seasonal hours, job-sharing, support for the
elderly and children including on-site child-care, financial
support child-care, extended maternity/paternity leave, use of
sick leave or personal leave. For example, in Japan, women
employed by co-operatives noted that co-operatives are better
employers as they offer "fringe benefits for women including a
child-rearing leave system" and "no custom of encouraging a
women's resignation after she marries or has a child"7. 
Co-operatives in Sweden have pioneered equal opportunity
programmes. The first comprehensive programme for equal
opportunities  on the Swedish labour market was adopted in
1978 by Folksam, and insurance co-operative group. 
Kooperativa Forbundet, a consumer co-operative, has more
recently adopted an ambitious plan for equal rights focusing
on how KF, as an employer, can implement measures ensuring
equal rights and opportunities for women.  The policy includes
provision for equal pay, provision of education and training
as well as gender sensitization seminars for at least 70% of
its employees in the first year.

The ICA Resolution of September 1995 on Gender Equality in
Co-operatives specifies that  "women and men must have equal
participation and opportunities, the same working conditions
and equal pay for equal work, as well as equal training and
educational opportunities".

Women in Decision-Making
Co-operatives, by means of its democratic structure, offer
women a channel for gaining experience and for upward-mobility
in the power structure of the movement itself. In Asia, for
example, women at grassroots levels, have reported that
participation in co-operatives have increased their
self-esteem, provided access to education (functional
literacy, health and nutrition, etc.) and training, and has
helped them to develop their leadership skills. 

The little statistical evidence presently available on women
co-operators in decision-making positions shows that women are
not yet adequately represented in the ranks of power, policy
and decision-making.  However, the co-operative movement is
making a concerted effort to improve women's access to
decision-making positions.  For example, the World Council of
Credit Unions, an international organization bringing together
savings and credit co-operatives and credit unions worldwide,
has been actively seeking ways of increasing women's
participation in decision making. Recommendations were
presented to the WOCCU Board of Directors Annual General
Meeting in July, 1994 calling for increased education
programmes targeted at credit union officials, staff and
members; increased attention to gender issues and more active
recruitment of women for leadership roles and board
positions 8.

The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) has also called
on its membership to take an active role in increasing women's
participation in decision-making both at the global ICA and
national levels. At it Centenary Congress, national movements
were reminded that delegations should aim at gender balance
and that efforts need to be made to ensure womens' access to
decision-making levels. Also, ICA regional human resource
development programmes in Africa, Asia/Pacific and Latin
America are providing training to assist in the promotion of
women to management positions.

The Japanese Consumers' Co-operative Union (JCCU) adopted an
action programme "Aims for the Co-op to Promote Gender
Integration" in December, 1994 which it recommended
affirmative action programmes to ensure women at top
management positions.

Women and the Environment
Co-operatives are particularly suited to the achievement of
sustainable forms of development: a fundamental principle of
the international co-operative movement is that such
enterprises are concerned about the sustainable development of
the communities in which they exist by means of policies that
are respectful of the environment. Members of co-operatives
are able to ensure, because they are the owners, that their
enterprises adopt sustainable business goals and practices. 
Co-operatives worldwide have adopted an environmental ethic
and in some countries have taken the lead.

Women have often been at the forefront of developing good
practice, by campaigning on environmental issues, monitoring
products and recycling packaging.  Women members of consumer
co-operatives have been particularly active.  In Japan for
example 90% of the 17.3 million members of co-operatives are
women.  They have played a most important role in the Japanese
Consumers' Co-operatives activities in supplying
environmentally friendly products, monitoring pollution
levels, recycling resources, lobbing local and national
authorities, networking with civil organizations and
organizing campaigns requesting more effective national
environmental policies.

Women members of housing co-operatives, health co-operatives,
savings and loans co-operatives, co-operative banks,
co-operative insurance enterprises and community development
co-operatives have also played an important role in their
adoption of environmentally sensitive goals and practices.

It should be noted however, that above all, co-operatives, due
to their member orientation, have an enormous potential for
raising public awareness through the education and training of
their members and the communities in which they serve.  

The members of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
recognized the important role of co-operatives in promoting
sustainable development and adopted the "Co-operative Agenda
21" at the ICA Centenary Congress in Manchester in September,
1995.  The document identifies the present and potential
contribution of the co-operatives in promoting environmental
and development objectives and the important role of women in
influencing the sustainable development policies.

Institutional Arrangements for Implementing the Beijing 

               Declaration and Platform for Action 
The international co-operative movement pledged in Beijing to
collaborate with the United Nations system, Governments and
the civil society to contribute to the implementation of the
Platform for Action.

As mentioned earlier, the International Co-operative Alliance
(ICA) has taken concrete steps in this direction with the
collaboration with the International Labour Office in the
production the training package "Gender Issues in
Co-operatives: AN ILO-ICA Perspective". Gender sensitization
is one of the priority activities in the ICA work programme.
It has further committed itself to providing training to women
in co-operatives as a means of promoting women's increased
participation in decision-making through its regional human
resource development programmes in Africa, Asia/Pacific and
Latin America. 

The over 210 international and national member organizations
of the ICA have an equal commitment to implementing the
Platform of Action.  Co-operative organizations is Bolivia and
Italy have communicated their programme of activities aimed at
contributing to the implementation of the Platform.  These
include partnership activities with local and national
Government, activities aimed at sensitizing their communities
and internal policies and programmes.

In addition, the International Co-operative Alliance, the
World Council of Credit Unions and the International
Federation of Agricultural Producers all have special
programmes and bodies concerned with promoting and supporting
the contributions made by co-operative enterprise throughout
the world to the advancement of women to full equality with
men. Their work is supported by numerous Governments, who
channel technical assistance through national co-operative
development organizations, and by intergovernmental
organizations, including, within the United Nations system,
the International Labour Organisation, the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the United
Nations itself.

These organizations of the international co-operative movement
are prepared to collaborate in an enlarged partnership with
the UN system, Governments and civil society to ensure rapid
implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for

1.   Japanese Consumers' Co-operative Union, Report on
     Japanese Co-operators Views on Gender Integration:
     Women's Work? Men's Work? 1995.

2.   RAMOS, Jose Luis, "Mujer, Genero y Desarrollo en el
     Movimiento Cooperativo de Centroamerica y el Caribe" in
     Mujer et participacion social: Hacia la Concertacion de
     Generos en el Cooperativismo Centroamericano. CCC-CA,

3.   National Co-operative Business Association. A Day in the
     Life of Co-operative America. p. 26.

4.   Pestoff, Victor A. "Beyond Exit and Voice" in Delivering
     Welfare; Repositioning Non-profit and Co-operative Action
     in West European Welfare States. CIES, Barcelona (Spain),

5.   ILO. Gender Issues in Cooperatives: An ILO-ICA
     Perspective. Geneva, 1995.

6.   UN Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable
     Development and International Co-operative Alliance.
     Co-operative Enterprise in the Health and Social Care
     Sectors: A Global Review and Proposal for Policy
     Coordination (First Draft). Geneva and New York, November
     1995. p. 141.

7.   Japanese Consumers' Co-operative Union. Report on
     Japanese Co-operators Views on Gender Integration:
     Women's Work? Men's Work? 1995. p. 16.

8.   Women and Credit Unions' Symposium, 2 July 1994, Cork,

* Ms Chavez is the UN/Development  Liaison Officer for ICA,