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Why is Female Participation so Low?

The world over, statistics show that women's participation in most types of institution is low. Participation in rural cooperatives is no exception. This is perhaps more difficult to explain in the developed countries where gender discrimination has, in principle, been overcome. In the developing world, cultural and religious factors are often evoked: women's “inside” rôle, discretion, not speaking in front of men, traditions of men negotiating and handling money matters, illiteracy, supposed inferior abilities, and social pressures make it difficult for women to play an active and visible public rôle. Cooperatives tend to engage in types of business considered as men's domains and this goes a long way to keeping women out. Cash crops are a major case in point and even where women farmers are engaged in cash crop production, the fiction is often maintained and serves as an excuse for exclusion. Rural women's heavy household obligations (especially where they are the head of household), together with their general lack of free time to engage in cooperative activities, are factors everywhere.

Cooperative law often condones such discrimination by providing that the head of family attends meetings: the fact that the wife is often de facto, or even de jure, head of family (46% of rural households in Zimbabwe, 25% in Pakistan, 24% in Sudan are estimated to be female-headed) is not always seen as enough reason for her to participate. This is further compounded by provisions to the effect that only owners or tenants of land may be members of agricultural cooperatives. This is most often the male though he frequently shares much of the labour with his wife. Use of land should be substituted for tenure or ownership as a criterion to overcome this obstacle.

Being virtually absent from most cooperative meetings, women stand little chance of influencing decisions, and even less of being elected to Boards or other posts. There would appear, however, to be one exception, both in Africa and Asia: the post of treasurer. Women have a reputation for greater honesty and dedication than men and therefore have some chance of election to this key, if not very influential, post. Of course, on the other hand, when women treasurers lack self-assertion and experience, they are open to abuse by unscrupulous men such as the secretary or president.

“Mixed” cooperatives have tended to be synonymous with “men's” cooperatives. But the importance of certain agricultural cooperatives in village life, and their repercussions on agricultural production, processing and marketing, as well as on family life and on women's chores, is too great for the exclusion of women from the decision-making process to be accepted as inevitable.

When cooperative laws are being revised, all provisions which make for gender discrimination should therefore be weeded out to avoid aggravating the problems faced by women in their attempts to be integrated into the participatory cooperative structures.

Promoting Women's Economic and Social Integration

Training, education and information have an important rôle to play in increasing women's involvement in cooperatives. But they would be more effective if:

Female Participation in the Anand Dairy Cooperatives
The Anand pattern of dairy cooperative has come to symbolize female agricultural enterprise. Unfortunately, this positive image does not correspond to reality in the villages.
According to Radhika Philip, despite efforts by the National Dairy Development Board, the government and NGOs, women's membership is still only around 16 per cent nationally, even though “in virtually every part of India women are the primary dairy producers responsible for most of the activities involved in dairying”.
Even in terms of actual participation by members, Philip found that “in many cases, dairy cooperative societies represent little more than milk collection centres and member participation and control is less that what is necessary to ensure cooperative success”. This predicament is largely an outcome of the fact that village dairy societies and unions were started by state governments which continue to dominate the federations of these primary societies and unions.

Even the poorest rural women develop survival strategies, though these may not be easy to discern to the inexperienced eye. Implementing those strategies can usually be made easier through group action and this is where rural women's institutions come in. All-female cooperatives, and other rural groups, can serve as training grounds in formal participatory development, strengthen methods of group decision-making, and develop trust and self-assurance. Women can also be groomed to play their role in mixed societies by first learning group leadership roles in exclusively women's societies. Rural women's cooperatives also provide a valuable apprenticeship in the conduct of business: successful women's groups demonstrate to skeptical men (and women alike) that women are capable of developing their own business and can thus be valuable participants in mixed societies as well.

As breeding grounds for democracy and participation, cooperatives could be used to empower women by enhancing and upgrading their specific technical knowledge and organizational self-help capacities. For instance, indigenous knowledge in areas such as traditional healing, frequently transferred through the female members of the family, is under severe threat from modern medicine. Cooperatives could institute programmes whereby such knowledge would be systematically called on and preserved, and proposed as a service where modern health services are being cut back as a result of structural adjustment programmes19.

If women had greater freedom to decide on the types of businesses that can be conducted through a cooperative, the way would be open for the development of activities of specific interest to women, such as small cooperative mills, food storage and preservation, production of household necessities like soap and clothing, small animal raising and handicrafts as well as the staple food of which women are usually the main producers. More stress should also be laid on cooperatives' social function by organising services which would relieve women of some of their tasks: child care services or drudgery-reducing activities such as food processing, or assist with organising marriages and other ceremonies.

Such activities are already taking place through so-called informal groups: in Benin, only 8 per cent of rural women are members of cooperatives but 90 per cent belong to traditional groups. An important reason for this apparent imbalance is that they keep control over their own money and can use it flexibly when it is channeled (invisibly) through women's groups. Experience has shown that women prefer to stay independent both of the constraints of cooperative laws, about which they have often received little if any information, and more especially of interference and domination by men (including their own family members)!

Promoting women's participation in cooperatives will be greatly aided if gender-sensitive statistics were collected: this would provide an effective monitoring tool regarding women's participation and leadership roles they manage to play. This type of information could be collected at a very local level and would not need to wait for country-wide information in order to be usable.

Finally, more active female participation in rural cooperatives will have an additional bonus. A debate on gender division of labour for agricultural and domestic tasks, especially in the light of evolving technologies, would almost certainly develop through the regular cooperative meetings. The male members may then become convinced that there are more efficient ways of allocating tasks and resources than the current ones, to the greater good of the whole village and household social and economic set-up.

19 In countries of the South, while traditional healing is effective for most common ailments, free (at least for those with the necessary knowledge), and empowering, modern medicine tends to be expensive (based on imported pharmaceuticals), unreliable (medicines not always available, medical centres closed for lack of means to operate them), and disempowering (dependent upon outside knowledge).

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