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Cooperatives: Empowering women farmers, improving food security

Rural cooperatives and farmers’ organizations play a crucial role in the eradication of hunger and poverty. One of the ways they achieve this is through their vocation to empower small agricultural producers, and in particular women farmers.

“Organizing is the key to empowerment. Organizing is the process by which people who are individually weak and vulnerable unite and create power together. When individuals who are among the poorest, least educated and most disenfranchised members of society come together they experience dramatic changes in their lives.” -- Renana Jhabvala, Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA).

Empowering women farmers improves food security for all

Women comprise on average 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries and produce the bulk of the world’s food crops. While the vast majority of small scale producers experience difficulties accessing resources, socio-cultural norms particularly curtail women producer’s access to productive resources including education, land, technologies, information, financial services, and markets.

Their presence in decision-making bodies, especially in leadership positions, also remains weak, and their needs as farmers are seldom accounted for in policy and resource allocation. As a result, women farmers do not produce to their full capacity.

If women farmers had access to the same opportunities and resources as men farmers, their productivity would rise significantly and the food security of millions of people would be improved.

One challenge that remains is to improve women’s participation in cooperatives.1 The same socio-economic constraints that limit women’s access to resources also often challenge their participation in organizations. 2012, declared the International Year of Cooperatives by the United Nations General Assembly, offers a unique window of opportunity for governments and development agencies to reinforce farmers’ organizations and to support them to empower the women within their ranks.

How cooperatives and farmers’ organizations work for women producers

Through the power of association, cooperatives and farmers’ organizations have long demonstrated their capacity to help small scale producers overcome barriers to gain better access to resources and inputs, and thus to play a greater role in meeting the growing global food demand.

For women producers, who are at a greater disadvantage, cooperatives offer networks of mutual support and solidarity that allow them to grow their social capital, improve their self-esteem and self-reliance, acquire a greater voice in decision-making, and collectively negotiate better contract terms, prices and access to a wide range of resources and services including:

  • agricultural resources and assets;
  • markets to commercialize their produce;
  • credit, capital and other financial services; and
  • social services.

Numerous examples from around the world demonstrate how women producers are socially and economically empowered through their membership in cooperatives and farmers’ organizations, allowing them to produce more, earn better incomes, and raise the living standards and economic and food security of their families and communities.

As part of the FAO Agricultural Commodities Project, the Exposure and Exchange Programme (EEP), one of FAO’s initiatives to support women producers, brings together women leaders from the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a highly successful network of partner organizations that has over 1.24 million women members across India, 54% of whom are agricultural workers, and from producer organizations from other part of the world to exchange ideas and improve their organizations’ operations. 

The EEP held in 2011 brought together women leaders from SEWA and from producer organizations from West and Central Africa. Many examples of women farmers’ improved productivity were evoked during the meeting.
One of them is the experience of the members of the small Benkadi women’s cooperative of shallots producers in the Segou region of Mali. Members were experiencing difficulties getting a good price for their produce and as a result were unable to invest and expand their production. By reaching out and coming together with 21 other small associations of women shallot producers, they were able to integrate the larger Faso Jigi farmers’ cooperative. Faso Jigi invested in 19 shallot storage facilities and marketed the produce where prices were more advantageous, offering the women a better income and the opportunity to invest in their businesses and expand their production. Currently, 920 of the Faso Jigi’s 4 200 members are women shallot producers whose needs and concerns are taken into account in the cooperative’s operations.

Reinforcing women’s participation and leadership

2012, the International Year of Cooperatives, offers a unique opportunity for the international community to address the challenge of improving  women’s access and leadership within  cooperatives to empower them to improve their lives and that of their families’ and communities’,  and to support better global food security.  Many effective measures can be adopted by governments, international organizations and cooperatives themselves to achieve this.

To this end, a range of recommendations were put forward at the Expert Group Meeting “Enabling rural women's economic empowerment: institutions, opportunities and participation” held by UN Women and the Rome-based UN agencies--FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP)--in September 2011 in Accra, Ghana.

At the macro and policy level, the measures that governments can adopt include creating legislation and regulatory frameworks that ensure farmers’ organizations can operate independently and offer incentives for rural women to join, reserving  spaces for women farmer leaders to participate in country and global policy processes, and institutionalizing mechanisms to involve leaders of women farmers’ organizations in agricultural and rural policy making.

Cooperatives can also be supported to establish quotas for the participation of women in their leadership and to create women-only committees to ensure they can voice their concerns strongly enough to exercise leadership; conduct training activities to sensitize cooperative members to the negative impact of gender inequalities in the home, farm/workplace, and in society as a whole; and to implement training programs that improve women farmers’ access to agricultural technologies and allow them to develop their skills. 

Through their ability to reach marginalized groups, to empower their members economically and socially, and  to create sustainable rural employment through equitable business models, cooperatives and farmers’ organizations comprise unique platforms to provide women producers with the means to better contribute to global food security. By strengthening support to these organizations and  facilitating women’s membership, the international community will accomplish great strides towards the eradication of hunger.

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1. A cooperative is an autonomous association of women and men, united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. It is a business enterprise that seeks to strike a balance between pursuing profit and meeting the needs and interests of members and their communities. Source: Agricultural cooperative: Paving the way for food security and rural development Factsheet. FAO, IFAD, WFP (2011)

Publié: 15/11/2012

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