Posted September 1996
The position of women in many rural cooperatives is illustrated by the Anand pattern dairy cooperative, which has come to symbolise female agricultural enterprise. Unfortunately, this positive image does not correspond to reality in the villages. According to one study, despite efforts by the National Dairy Development Board, the government and NGOs, female 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" (Radhika Philips. "Member Participation and Cooperative Performance", FAO, December 1994).
There is no need here to develop the negative effects this has in societies where the family unit is no longer so solid and especially where the male head of family is often absent for long periods in search of work and income.
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 is not always seen as enough reason for her to participate. This is 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 who, however, 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 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 agricutural 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 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.
As breeding grounds for democracy and participation, cooperatives could be used to empower women by enhancing and upgrading their specific knowledge and 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.
With greater freedom to decide on the types of business to conduct through a cooperative, the way is 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. More stress should also be laid on cooperatives' social function by organising services which would relieve women from certain of their tasks: child care services or drudgery-reducing activities, or assist with organising mariages and other ceremonies.
Such activities are already taking place through so-called informal groups: in Benin, while only 8 per cent of rural women are members of cooperatives, 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 cooperative laws and more especially of interference and domination by men!
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.