Women’s cooperatives, less than 2% of total in India, need to ensure they don’t lose out in market share

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The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), held a workshop in Ahmedabad on August 8-9 with the participation of representatives from the SEWA Cooperative Federation, SEWA Bharat (SEWA’s national federation), International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), 42 grassroots women leaders of 21 cooperatives from 12 Indian states, and two participants from Iran’s Rah-e-Roshd Cooperative

The seminar was inaugurated by SEWA founder Ela Bhatt, who told the participants, “When a woman milks a cow in her village, she is not counted as a worker. But when she is in a dairy cooperative, she gets an identity and visibility.” Pointing out that this is what SEWA-promoted cooperatives are trying to do, she insisted on “a joint strategy of struggle and development for building an economy of nurturance.”

Excerpts from the concept note presented at the workshop:

Cooperatives have been an integral part of nation building in India since Independence, rooted in post-colonial thought where the reconstruction of the local economy and decentralization of power towards the margins became paramount. Cooperatives allow for decentralized, inclusive, equitable and self-reliant growth that promote the transcendence of structural barriers by small producers, consumers and service-providers.

Liberalisation and globalisation have an adverse impact on cooperatives but the financial recession and subsequent consolidation of evidence on widespread disparities in wealth, have resulted in the rise of a solidarity economy in which cooperatives again play a central role.

Cooperatives continue to be the only viable alternative to the volatility and exploitation of the free-market economy and may therefore be one of the few institutional structures that can provide a modicum of balance between the disparate groups within both India, and globally. Finding means to support and enhance the capabilities of these cooperatives is therefore imperative.

However, we observe that the challenges facing cooperatives in general, have an additional gender problem. According to the National Cooperative Union of India, in 2009-2010 there were 610,020 cooperatives in India with a total membership of 249,367,000.

Women’s cooperatives were less than 2 percent of the total number and their membership comprised less than one half per cent of the total membership in cooperatives in the country (ILO National Advisory Council “Development of Cooperatives in India” 2018).

This has consequences because a study of 128 countries (including developed and developing) states that ‘if female employment rates were to match male rates in the United States, overall GDP would rise by 5%. In Japan, such initiatives could increase GDP by 9%. In developing economies like India, the effect soars to 27%.’ A starting point for all countries therefore is a long, hard look at their female workforce participation rates.

The initial findings of the ILO study of Global Workforce Participation Rate (WFPR) reflect the marginal progress we have made to close the gap in Male-Female workforce participation. Since 1990, the overall WFPR has increased but in 2018 it stands at 48.5%, which is a staggering 26.5 percentage points below that of men.

There have been improvements in this gap since 2009, but ILO predicts that it is to ‘grind to a halt during 2018–21, and possibly even reverse, potentially negating the relatively minor improvements in gender equality in access to the labor market achieved over the past decade.’

Further investigation of the statistics for developing countries throws up a common refrain, i.e., there is an unusually high proportion of the workforce that is self-employed. As of 2018, the ILO predicts 76.4% of the workforce in developing countries to be self-employed.

An important point to be noted here is that self-employment comes under the category of ‘vulnerable employment’ and is more likely to fall under informal employment. Women are over-represented in the vulnerable employment category which in the context of the developing world means reduced access to social protection norms, lack of labour laws and poor working conditions.

As several countries have a large and growing informal workforce, the question of work security, the future of work and how to formalize the informal workforce and enterprises are pressing and pertinent issues. Cooperatives and other forms of solidarity organizations have taken on a renewed significance in this context.

An International Cooperative Alliance Asia and Pacific (ICA-AP) Study stated that ‘Investing in women’s empowerment leads to gender equality, poverty eradication and economic growth. For building gender equity and equality, cooperatives are the ideal mechanisms due to their democratic and voluntary character given the established correlation between the engagement of women in co-operatives to poverty reduction.’

Various research analyses about the impact of cooperatives on women’s empowerment have been overwhelmingly affirmative. Cooperatives empower women by helping them form collectives with stronger negotiating powers, boost their economic well-being, and improve the economic security of their families.

Most importantly, the economic independence that women gain help them build social capital in societies where it is quite hard to come by and protects them to a certain degree from the vagaries of informal employment.

Cooperatives are also indispensable to the timely accomplishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically, achieving gender equality (SDG 5) and providing for Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8). ICA-AP in partnership with its members has been working on specific targets under both these SDGs.

For example, under SDG 5, it’s working on building an enabling legal and policy environment, equal participation at all levels and especially at leadership and decision making, skill development for socio-economic empowerment and regular collection and use of sex-disaggregated data to track progress.

Likewise, pertinent targets under SDG 8 like promoting development-oriented policies that support decent work and entrepreneurship and achieving full and productive employment for all including women with equal work for equal pay, are attainable through the cooperative model and support system.

But, is that enough?

The success of women’s cooperatives, like any other institution, depends on a variety of factors. In the current business environment, local and global, being relevant and competitive is key. Women’s cooperatives need to ensure that they don’t lose their market share to other forms of cooperatives or corporate enterprises. Access to and knowledge of modern technologies and market linkages will go a long way in ensuring the sustainability of women’s cooperatives.

Networking amongst women for engaging in business development and exploring possibilities to enter into business agreements for procurement and sale of respective products is an important need of the hour. Training and skill-building is another important prerequisite.

Secondly, they need the support of an enabling environment with policies, laws and regulations that assist in the smooth functioning of the cooperatives. For example, some of the women’s cooperatives in India face hurdles while registering their cooperative, and similar challenges when they apply for expansion.

Simpler regulatory processes may go a long way in encouraging and sustaining women’s cooperatives. An enabling environment to promote women-led and owned cooperatives would help millions of working women secure their rights and livelihoods.

Thirdly, a key pillar to the advancement of women’s cooperatives is the availability of funds for financing and investing in the cooperatives. Banking institutions are more than willing to fund new-age start-ups, but similar avenues are lacking for women’s cooperatives.

These cooperatives also require a certain degree of hand-holding to understand the myriad processes involved in accessing loans or investments from public and private financing institutions.

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