University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
The First Americas Continental Forum on Women and Co-operatives was sponsored by the International Cooperative Alliance in 1996. This report was prepared by Barb Millsap and Carol Hunter, who participated in the Forum.
First Americas Continental Forum on Women and Co-operatives
San Jose, Costa Rica
November 18-19, 1996
Canadian Co-operative Association
"Success for women is like the promised land -- a pilgrimage through dark alleys". So began a presentation by Clara Coria, author of Success Labyrinth, at the Continental Forum of Women Co-operators last November in Costa Rica. Participants and presenters shared several stories of dark alleys encountered on the road towards equity in decision-making and the sharing of political and economic power.
For many of the approximately 400 women at the Forum, it was enough to just listen to the presentations given over two days and to feel empowered by the collective strength of the women and men in the room. Women from over 20 countries traveled by air, or over land and sea, to attend the first women in co-operatives conference. Co-operative educators; politicians; anthropologists; psychologists; and leaders within co-operatives discussed such issues as integrated vs. women-focused development projects; the need for baseline and disaggregated data which measures the impact of co-operatives on women's lives; and strategies used by co-ops to increase the participation of women in decision-making. There were also several papers given on the psychology of altruism (the "feminization" of altruism) and attitudinal barriers which prevent a full ethic of reciprocity from being realized.
The opening ceremony of the Forum was a ceremony to end all ceremonies. A full light and sound show kicked off the entrance of young men and women into the room, each carrying a flag of the countries represented at the Forum. Dressed in white gymnastic wear, the young athletes ran up and down the aisles with the flags from over 20 countries. A young woman carrying the Rainbow Flag then proceeded up the centre aisle while the other flags circled the flag of co-operation. The ceremony was beautifully executed and there were several moist eyes amongst the women and men sitting together in the darkened room.
The Forum began on a Monday and started a full week of meetings. The Forum preceded the General Assembly of the ICA Americas Region where delegates would be asked to adopt a five year strategic plan and a revised political structure. The significance of the timing of the Forum was realized by participants at the Forum, and a working group was established to make recommendations to the Consultative Council of the Americas (the Consultative Council is responsible for approving the strategic plan and for governing the affairs of the America's Region). Most of the recommendations were incorporated into the strategic plan that would go to the General Assembly at the end of the week. The general thrust of the recommendations was that women's perspectives must be made explicit in the strategic plan, not just assumed.
During the *Deglobalization* Conference which came after the Forum, the theme of sustainable development was explored. This further strengthened the resolve of participants from the Women's Forum who had stayed to attend the Conference. The women realized that the interests of human development and community needed to be incorporated into the political structure of the Americas Region. Earlier in the week, the Consultative Council had agreed on the need for the ICA America's sector committees to be part of the Council structure. The need for specialized committees, such as the women's, youth, and environment committees had not yet, however, been fully addressed. The women from the Working Group took the initiative to meet with the President of the Region, Roberto Rodregis, to obtain his support in having specialized committees recognized the same way the sector committees were to be recognised in the structure. Proposed changes to the structure would now have to go to the General Assembly and a letter from the women's Working Group was sent to the President of the Americas Region and copies were circulated to the General Assembly requesting the formation and recognition of an Americas Region Women in Co-operatives Committee. The women spoke to their respective delegations over the next two days.
At the General Assembly, the Canadian delegation played a key role in leading the series of amendments that resulted in the plan to establish specialized committees that would be formally recognized in the political structure and be treated in the same way as the sector committees. The final approved structure of the Consultative Council now includes a representative from each country and the five confederations, plus the Presidents of each sector and specialized committee. Each of these representatives will have a vote. An Executive Committee has been established to help direct the work of the Consultative Council and to act between meetings. Canada's Bill Turner will serve on the Executive Committee.