ICA Report: Regional PrepCom - Africa

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

            International Co-operative Alliance


   Report to the African Regional Preparatory Meeting for
          the Fourth World Conference on Women
                   Dakar, November 1994

Co-operatives, as democratic, member-run and member-financed
self-help enterprises have a great potential contributing to the
improvement of the economic and social conditions of women
worldwide. This has been recognized by the United Nations
Secretary-General in his reports on the co-operative movement,
Status and Role of Co-operatives in the Light of New Economic and
Social Trends, the most recent issued 1 July 1994 (A/49/213).

In Africa, women have had to play an increasingly prominent role
in the economy. As the principal producers of staple foods with
a labour input substantially higher than that of men, they are
now confronted with increasing pressure to undertake more income-
generating activities to allow them to meet the basic needs of
their families. These production-related responsibilities are
being added to their traditional reproduction-related duties
within a socio-economic environment that has constrained their
effective participation in development through "gender blind"
plans and policies that do not reflect the needs of women.
Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), trade liberalization and
privatization only exacerbate already difficult conditions.

Co-operatives have been able to contribute to both the economic
and social empowerment of women.  Both women only and mixed co-
operatives provide women access to income-generating activities
while also lessening their overall work load (i.e. allowing them
to reconcile income-generating activities with traditional
responsibilities including family care, the collection of
firewood and water, cultivating the family plot, etc.).  Co-
operatives have also been able to tackle acute problems faced by
women including illiteracy, lack of education, training,
information, and health care.  Co-operatives, too, contribute to
the acceptance of women's changing role in traditional African

Empowerment of Women

Ignorance of women's needs and failure to recognize their key
role in economic development, undermine the potential for
development. Improving the status of women as economic actors is
consequently a precondition for sustainable development. However,
women can only participate in the development process to the
extent that their human rights are fully recognized, their human
potential is developed and they are empowered. This empowerment
will come from their having access to and control over resources.

The Nairobi Forward Looking Strategy recommends the participation
in co-operative organizations as a means towards self-
empowerment. Co-operatives have a key role to play as they are
able to respond to both women's practical and strategic needs by
providing access to income-generating activities as worker-
owners. By virtue of this double capacity, women can have access
to common production resources (such as credit, land, marketing
facilities, infrastructure, tools, technology, etc), which
increase their income as well as lighten their tasks. Economic
advancement will in turn lead to economic independence, heighten
self-esteem and eventually increased influence in the household
and community. This is the case of women traders of the
foodstuffs co-operatives in Cote d'Ivoire and women members of
fish processing co-operatives in Ghana.

Women have thus through their participation in co-operatives been
able to contribute to the economy of the household and improve
their social situation within their communities. At grassroots
level, women have reported that participation in co-operatives
have increased their self-esteem, assisted in earning the respect
of their spouses, provided a degree of independence, accessed
education, training and information, and developed their
leadership skills. Finally, participation in the running of a co-
operative as a member also provides business training and thus
opportunities for the advancement of women. 

Women in the Peace Process

     Co-operative enterprises were indeed given their name
     because they were means for co-operation.  Their principles
     emphasized dignity, tolerance and harmony in working
     together in a voluntary and democratically controlled
     working context.  This encouraged mutual understanding
     between diverse members, enabling them to work and live
     together when other wise they might never have done so.

In addition to the inherent quality of co-operatives to build
links between people so as to reduce the incidence of conflict,
co-operatives have also been able to contribute to the
alleviation of hardships in times of conflict. In Benin, women's
tontines continued savings and credit operations which allowed
their communities to have access to credit during periods of
instability and in Sierra Leone women's co-operatives continued
to produce essential consumer goods like bread and soap.

Refugees and displaced persons have also turned to, or
reconstituted the co-operative form of organization of their
regions of origin. In order to meet the needs of settling on
their new lands, women have formed themselves into associations
or groupings to farm the land or engage in other income-
generating activities.

Equality, Education and Social Issues

Exercising the right to participate as equal partners in the
development process requires skills that must be developed
through capacity building. It is consequently crucial that as
many women as possible be offered education and training
opportunities, so that each woman, whatever her culture and
background, from whatever part of the world, can develop her full
capabilities to the ultimate benefit of all society.

The principle of education and training for members is one of the
precepts of co-operatives. This applies to all members regardless
of sex. It is also a precondition for the empowerment of women.
Taking part in technical and business training sessions, women
acquire much needed entrepreneurial skills.  Co-operatives all
over the region are also providing literacy training to members
and communities. These programmes are financed through their
income-generating activities. For example, in Senegal, the Union
Nationale des Cooperative Agricoles (UNAC) systematically
includes functional literacy programmes in all of its training
activities. In the village of Tanlili in Burkina Faso, part of
the income generated by running a millet mill has been used to
build and equip a permanent functional literacy hut for women's

In addition to their marginal participation in formal education,
women also face barriers in accessing information. Efforts are
therefore being made by co-operatives to ensure that women co-
operators have access to the same technical information as their
male counterparts. For example in Niger, savings and credit co-
operative societies ensure that information is available to both
its men and women members by organizing, if necessary, separate
meetings with the same content.

Co-operatives are also contributing to the education of the girl
child.  Women, traditionally the principal caretakers of
children, generally bring their children to co-operative meetings
and technical training sessions.  Given that the girl child is
still limited in her access to education, she is more likely to
be exposed to co-operatives than boys, as boys are more likely
to be permitted to attend school.  In Mali and Niger, girl
children attend the meeting of women co-operators.  When the
level of education is higher than that of their mothers, educated
girls serve as a channel for transmitting information and
sometimes even take over the tasks of their mothers as is the
case of Mali, where the accounts of rural women's groupings are
kept by the daughters of the women co-operators.

Women's participation in the developing process has also been
constrained by socio-cultural norms that have often been used to
legitimize their subordinate status in society. Co-operatives
have contributed to changing traditional and cultural practices
and attitudes that have frustrated their efforts to participate
in the economy as more than just marginal actors. Savings and
credit co-operatives in Cote d'Ivoire have for example been able
to change husbands' attitudes to credit for women.  Many women
were obliged to obtain loans secretly without the consent of
their husbands.  After two years these husbands saw that the
loans had allowed the women to increase their income-generating
activities.  The men now find it normal for their wives to have
access to credit.

Co-operatives are also contributing to improved health care to
women.  A number of co-operatives operating in rural areas have
reported that the income generated by the co-operative allowed
them to open a pharmacy in the village providing them with access
to medicine. In other areas, co-operatives have been able to
ensure transport of women to hospitals. In addition,
co-operatives have included nutrition, child care and hygiene
education programmes in their training sessions. In Senegal
maternity and health huts have been established as a result of
co-operative activities. These huts comprise a small unit caring
for pregnant women including deliveries and pre- and post-natal
care.  In Benin, co-operative clinics have been established in
towns and villages. In both Cape Verde and Mali community health
huts and co-operative clinics have been established which serve
the needs of women in their communities.  In Nigeria, the Co-
operative Federation of Nigeria has integrated hygiene education
into formal training sessions.

As respect of women is often related to economic independence,
women who participate in co-operatives are less likely to be
victims of violence since they are income earners.   In addition,
co-operatives offer security and protection as it they are based
on solidarity and support among its members.

Co-operatives are a tested model of organized collaboration which
provide avenues for both women and men to pool human resources,
converting individual potential into a socio-economic force. They
are a form of organization which women can use to help
themselves. With their democratic structure, co-operatives offer
women as members and employees opportunities for participation
in and influence over economic activities. Women gain self-
reliance through this participation, as well as access to
opportunities which they would not have been able to obtain on
their own. 

The examples above have shown how co-operatives are presently
contributing to the improvement of the status of women both
economically and socially. Co-operative organizations both
individually and collectively through national, regional and
international co-operative organizations have made a pledge to
further the advancement of women.

The ICA has demonstrated its commitment to improving the lives
of women through participation in co-operatives. In 1993, ICA
member organizations adopted the ICA Policy on Women in Co-
operative Development. Gender officers at ICA's regional offices
ensure that proper attention is being focused on women in co-
operatives in the regions. The ICA Women's Committee which dates
back to the turn of the century, continues to promote the full
integration and effective participation of women in co-operative

ICA will continue its work promoting networking among its member
organizations as well as with other organizations and bodies
which aim at bettering the economic and social conditions of both
women and men. It reiterates its wish to contribute to and
collaborate with other organizations in programmes which aim at
improving the status of women.

               For more information, please contact:
               International Co-operative Alliance
               15 Route des Morillons
               1218 Grand Saconnex, Geneva
               Tel:      +41 22 929 88 88
               Fax:      +41 22 798 41 22
               E-mail:   icageneva@gn.apc.org