Contribution of Co-ops to Platform for Action: Poverty

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  This document has been made available in electronic format by
         the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
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              FOURTH WORLD CONFERENCE ON WOMEN : 
         ACTION FOR EQUALITY, DEVELOPMENT AND PEACE 
            BEIJING, CHINA, 4 - 15 SEPTEMBER 1995

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        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 *
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                      New York, March 1995


PREPARED JOINTLY, PURSUANT TO GENERAL ASSEMBLY RESOLUTION 49/155,
       BY THE INTERNATIONAL CO-OPERATIVE ALLIANCE AND 
    THE UNITED NATIONS DEPARTMENT FOR POLICY COORDINATION 
                AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

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


I.   CONTRIBUTIONS OF CO-OPERATIVES TO THE STRATEGIC 
       OBJECTIVES OF THE DRAFT PLATFORM OF ACTION
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The comments which follow are set out in the order in which the
Draft Platform for Action contained in the Annex to resolution
38/10 of the Commission on the Status of Women, as revised
subsequently for consideration by the Commission at its
thirty-ninth session (New York, 15 March 4 April 1995), and set
out in document E/CN.6./1995/2, structured the strategic
objectives derived from the critical areas of concern.

A. THE PERSISTENT AND INCREASING BURDEN OF POVERTY ON WOMEN
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Co-operatives help those of their members and employees, who are
women to overcome poverty by providing employment, including
self-employment, which is more secure than that in other types
of enterprise operating in the same local conditions, of labour
than the norm for local enterprise; by providing a wide range of
utilities, services and goods at a cost and quality that many
women would not otherwise be able to afford; by lobbying for
consumer protection and combating monopolies, local and national;
by providing access to means of secure savings,insurance against
risk and credit at non-exploitive terms; and by lobbying for
women's equal access to employment, including the means to
overcome problems arising from women's simultaneous
responsibilities for household and other occupations.

Poor women are able to establish their own co-operative
enterprises to meet the precise conditions in which they find
themselves : thereafter they are able to control the business
goals and practices of their co-operative. Poor women may also
join existing co-operatives, whose membership may not be confined
to those who are poor : however, it is usually the case that
other members are aware of the fact that it was through co-
operative membership that their grandparents and parents were
able to escape from poverty. For this reason they are disposed
to encourage membership of poor women, and to provide them with
the fullest possible support, as an expression of solidarity
among co-operatives and co-operators.

Financial co-operatives are of special value for 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 recirculating
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.

Savings and credit co-operatives in many countries have
introduced programmes specifically designed to meet the financial
needs of their women members. 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. 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 : emergency loans of $ 25 could be made,
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 to assist grass-roots co-operative
development.

Co-operative banks and insurance enterprises - which in many
countries are among the largest enterprises in these sectors -
have taken the lead in introducing gender-sensitive services. In
some countries - notably India - women have set up an operate
their own co-operative banks, that is banks whose owners are the
account holders. Insurance co-operatives have established
gender-specific services better suited than their pre-existing
general products to women's specific financial needs at each
phase of their life cycle and in such specific situations as
divorce, widowhood, unemployment, status and responsibilities as
heads of households, or as single mothers, as well as their
particular, and often discriminatory, legal status. These
programmes allow women to benefit from flexible pension schemes,
health and life insurance, householders and home owners's
insurance.

Of particular relevance to women is the fact that, in both rural
areas and inner cities, there exist housing co-operatives, health
co-operatives, child-care co-operatives and general retail
consumer co-operatives which provide food, household equipment
and other inputs, that are particularly supportive to women.
These and all other co-operatives stress general education and
literacy as well as technical and managerial training. User-owned
co-operative enterprises contribute significantly to overcoming
condition which contribute to chronic poverty - i.e. inadequate
housing, fuel, energy, water, sanitation, infrastructure and
essential services. These include housing construction and
maintenance co-operatives which often set aside accommodation for
lower-income households, (including single mothers and other
female heads of households); electricity, heating, telephone,
water and sanitation co-operatives; community development co-
operatives; health care and social service provision co-
operatives. The impact of their activities is to free the time
and energies of women, otherwise primarily responsible for the
operation of the household sector, enabling them to engage in
education and training, seek and keep jobs; engage in
entrepreneurial activity; undertake community work and engage in
politics.

Basic living costs can consume such a high proportion of income
that little or nothing remains for entrepreneurial development,
education, training and improving health. Consumer-owned retail
co-operatives are able to reduce such costs while simultaneously
assuring the adequate provision of appropriate and high quality
goods and services. Bulk purchasing, limited expenditures on
advertising and concentration on a limited number of product
lines assure adequate supplies of basic necessities to those with
limited incomes. They are of particular importance to women in
their function as managers and labour-force within the millions
of micro-enterprises which make up the household sector.

Co-operative enterprises are particularly effective in protecting
consumer interests because their member-owners establish their
own goals and practices. For this reason they have been in the
forefront in the introduction of consumer-responsive practices
such as unit-pricing and truthful advertising. Women are able
through their membership in co-operatives, and hence in the
broader co-operative movement, to exert an influence on national
policy-making that otherwise they would have little opportunity
of doing. For example, the European Community of Consumer Co-
operatives (EUROCO-OP) was given formal responsibility for
drafting the directives of the Union on foodstuffs, and by
lobbying succeeded in having a consumer protection section
included within the Treaty of the European Union. Some national
consumer co-operatives have established their own advertising
agencies, whose practices must conform to an ethical code.
Because of their economic weight, they are able to take direct
and effective economic actions, including insistence on quality
from suppliers, often doubly secured by purchasing only from
producer-co-operatives.

Co-operatives are able to support the climb from poverty of girls
and women with virtually no resources of their own. In some cases
they are supported by means of international solidarity among co-
operatives. For example, in Rumania a housing co-operative whose
members are orphans, and which also provides a base for street
children, was set up in 1990 with the support of a United Kingdom
retail consumer co-operative. One of the houses has attached to
it a small farm, another a tailoring workshop. In 1992 an
apartment for girls was purchased.