01/20/2015 12:47 EST | Updated 03/22/2015 05:59 EDT

The Challenges of Closing the Gender Gap in Co-Operatives

Economic empowerment of women is one popular approach to closing the gender inequality gap. Yet co-operative enterprises, which have been successful in improving the livelihoods of disadvantaged and rural women in developing countries, remain widely unknown and under-utilized.


Gender equality and "gender mainstreaming" have rightfully become prominent areas of focus in the international development sector since the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995.

Economic empowerment of women is one popular approach to closing the gender inequality gap. Yet co-operative enterprises, which have been successful in improving the livelihoods of disadvantaged and rural women in developing countries, remain widely unknown and under-utilized.

Co-operatives are communally owned and governed businesses guided by a set of co-operative principles, including voluntary and open membership, regardless of gender, and democratic member control in decision-making. Co-ops have become popular among women in the developing world because they allow pooling of resources to establish previously unaffordable businesses and the creation of a safe, communal space for creativity, teamwork, and leadership.

However, the co-op model is not without its challenges. Improving low levels of active involvement and leadership for women is one of the most pressing issues in today's co-operative sector. With existing cultural and socio-economic barriers to women -- gendered segregation of labour, legal constraints, lack of access to credit land, and education -- it is not surprising that gender imbalances exist within co-operatives in many developing countries.

In our time as interns working in the co-operative sector in Vietnam and Mongolia, the knowledge and experiences we have respectively gained have helped us to identify some of the salient gender equality successes and challenges faced by co-ops in each national context.

In Vietnam co-operatives have a long history dating back to the the early 1920s and continuing today. A complete economic overhaul and de-collectivization of the co-op sector occurred in 1986, with new criteria and removal of government subsidies. In Vietnam today, there are over 17,900 co-operatives, and over 320,000 cooperation interest groups, which are not legally registered co-ops but function with the same principles in mind.

One story of co-ops in Vietnam is the Sustainable Livelihoods for Women in North Vietnam project, a partnership between CCA and three Vietnamese organizations (TYM, CFRC, and MACDI). The project empowers rural women by improving access to a range of livelihood assets, reinforces participation in micro-insurance programs and co-ops, and expands social and business networks.

Over 3,000 women participants have been trained in small business development, and 11 co-ops and co-op interest groups are supported by the project, both all-female and mixed gender groups. Most co-ops in the project have seen great profit improvements, but one challenge moving forward is their lack of deep knowledge of the co-op principles, and how to successfully build upon these principles for gender equality.

Like Vietnam, Mongolia's co-operative history began under a socialist government in 1920s. Today, there are over 3,227 co-operatives in Mongolia, with a growth of 500 co-ops since 2012 alone. Women co-ops in the felt sector have been particularly successful. The Tsagaan Alt Wool Shop is the market brand of 12 women-owned felt co-ops and is renowned for having the highest quality felt products in the country.

One hundred percent of the profits, following the deduction of operational costs, go back to its members, thus supporting over 250 rural families. In a five-year project completed 2009, CCA also supported the creation and operation of 16 women-owned felt co-ops in seven provinces that still exist today. The results include a marked improvement in the standard of living, income, self-confidence, greater community standing of 150 women, and indirect benefits to their families.

In both Vietnam and Mongolia there is poor female representation in politics and high level positions of power. In co-operatives, most leadership positions are held by men. In Vietnam, a lack of qualifying education and a cultural expectation of "shyness" can hinder women from taking these positions even when the opportunity to do so becomes available. In Mongolia, confronting gender barriers to leadership is not considered an important issue by both men and women because they already perceive their society as being gender equal.

Women-only spaces, such as the International Cooperative Alliance -- Asia Pacific (ICA-AP) workshop held recently in Hanoi, are essential to provide a common meeting ground for women to share best practices on co-operative business, leadership and gender mainstreaming. Tools and practices discussed at the ICA-AP workshop, such as sex-disaggregated data (to discover patterns in membership and participation), gender advocacy education for men and women, and proper implementation of gender quotas (especially for leadership positions), all have their merits and must be implemented in an individual co-op context in order to work.

From the workshop, and from our experiences working in Vietnam and Mongolia, we have been able to think more critically about development initiatives. Considering the diverse lived experiences of women around the world, asking the question "What barriers still exist for women in co-operatives today, and how do we overcome them?" seems daunting in its breadth and complexity, and there is no one answer. However, this is a question that must be asked by both men and women, by both development practitioners and local co-operators, in order for co-operative development to affect equitable social, political, and economic change.

Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) interns Tecla Van Bussel (Vietnam) and Olivia Tran (Mongolia) reflect on the role of gender in co-operatives following the International Co-operative Alliance Asia-Pacific's Workshop "Enhancing the Role of Women in Co-operative Business" held in Hanoi, Vietnam, December 2014.


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