How are cooperatives fostering gender equality?

With open membership being one of the seven cooperative principles, promoting gender equality has been a key feature of the cooperative movement. 

Among the first to give women the right to vote, cooperatives have enabled women to fulfil their potential. When the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Cooperative Society was founded in 1844 women had the right to be full members.

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From the Women’s Cooperative Guild to date

The Women’s Cooperative Guild, which was set up in the UK in 1883, was actively involved in lobbying on a number of crucial issues such as introducing the minimum wage, equal pay, divorce laws, maternity benefits and initiating the white poppies campaign.

Through its Gender Equality Committee, the International Cooperative Alliance has also been active in pressing for progress at a global level. The ICA Strategy for Promoting Gender Equality was developed already in 1995 - the year of the adoption of the United Nations’ Beijing Declaration.

In February 2015 the ICA and the ILO carried out a survey to examine the perceptions among practitioners, academics, and members of NGO and government institutions concerning: the impact of cooperatives on women’s empowerment and gender equality generally and in comparison to other business forms; the challenges ahead. In total, 581 participants responded to the online survey, 75% of whom said they believed cooperatives had improved participation of women over the past 20 years. 

Today women continue to face challenges when it comes to equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes. Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which the ICA is supporting.

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which recognised the multiple benefits of cooperatives. Now, it is time for the UN and international cooperative development sector to increase and prioritise aid to key development actors that strengthen women's economic, social and political empowerment.

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Facts and figures

As economic actors, considering gendered norms, women continue to earn less, are more likely to partake in unpaid labour and more apt to be excluded from decent work. However, we must remind people that, when women establish or join cooperatives, they perform innovative labour activities, earning higher incomes and increasing their business performance and competitiveness. Joining cooperatives increases their decision-making in the household, and improves their participation and empowerment within community affairs - given that cooperatives, as people-centred enterprises focus on inclusive employment enabling at large women who suffer multi-faceted inequalities

Some examples show how this can be done.

  • In Spain, for example, women represent 54% of management and command positions in worker cooperatives;
  • In Italy the percentage of employed women, compared to the total, is 59% that means 1 million and 350 thousand women, with a good retention of employment even in times of crisis, women represent 50% of members and 24.8% of Board of Directors members.  
  • In the search for strategies to promote the participation of women in decision-making spaces of the cooperative sector, gender violence was identified as an invisible barrier to the greater participation of women in Argentina. In 2019, the Argentine Confederation of Cooperatives (Cooperar) has taken the decision to implement a Protocol of Prevention of Gender Violence, which each entity can then take as an example and adapt it to its characteristics.
  • In Nepal, 40% of the board of directors in cooperatives are women and 51% of members in cooperatives are women (out 6.5 million members in the country)
  • In the Philippines, cooperatives participate in the implementation of SDGs in several areas with the assistance of the government, specifically, gender equality and the empowerment of women. The Philippine Plan for Gender-Responsive Development (1995-2025) mandated the implementation of gender and development in public and private sector, in accord with the provision of human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The Cooperative Development Authority mandates all the registered cooperatives to mainstream gender and development.
  • In Nigeria, women constitute of 60% of the cooperative membership with 45% of the cooperative leadership being taken by women. The government and the cooperative movement promoted a Strategic Framework and national policy support and also registered the Nigeria Cooperative Women Alliance (NICOWA) to advocate for women participation in governance of all cooperative organizations and development of women cooperatives.
  • In Ethiopia, women make up to 42% of the cooperative membership and participate in different leadership positions in their cooperative thanks to an existing bylaw which states that there should be at least one female member in each and every cooperative management committee.