Debates on Co-operatives

Do co-operatives empower women?


Women in low-income countries are on average more credit and savings constrained than men given that 20 percent of women have an account at a formal financial institution compared to 27 percent for men (Demirguc-Kunt and Klapper 2012). One important reason is that women in many countries still lack ownership of land to act as collateral security. Thus, women face greater risks and restrictions for any form of investment into income-generating activities and security arrangements for themselves and their offspring. This gender-specific access to capital markets not only reflects unequal gender practices on the supply side of financial institutions in many developing countries but also materializes into unequal gender relations on the household level resulting into less economic opportunities on the labour market for women. Moreover, gender inequities on the capital market tend to spill over to other markets, limiting women’s ability to engage in agricultural trade (Jones et al. 2012, Mayoux et al. 2009, van Zanden 2004). As a result female occupations appear to concentrate around industries which provide poor returns to capital (De Mel et al. 2009).


In many developing countries, women and girls individually have only a limited capacity to change the way (capital) markets and social institutions function. However, women’s collective action has the potential to act upon problems that cannot be resolved individually. Because institutions themselves are gendered (Elson 1999), they can question or reinforce existing social norms and behaviour. Against this background, the introduction of self-help group-based microfinance and agricultural co-operatives for low-income households have been promoted (Chen et al. 2007, Birchall 2003). Indeed, the great majority of microfinance customers are women. Microfinance institutions counted more than 205 million clients – of whom more than 150 million were women, as of December 2010 (Microfinance Summit Campaign 2011). One important aspect of self-help microfinance programs is the explicit empowerment of women (Daley-Harris 2009), defined as the process of acquiring the ability to make strategic life choices in a context where there this ability has previously been opposed (Sen 1999, Kabeer 2001).


Despite the recent revival of agricultural and savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs) in the developing world (Develtere et al. 2009), its socio-economic development impact on female farmers remains often not well understood. Furthermore, impact evaluations have generated mixed results on the ability of group-based microfinance programs to mutually act as “magic bullet” or stimulate “virtuous spirals” for women’s agency on the household level (Kabeer 2005, Mayoux 1999). Moreover, co-operatives tend to exclude those women who would need those services most. However, we know very little about those motives and through which those selective mechanisms they come about. Do more empowered women choose more empowered women?


Secondly, there are various studies that find that wealthier and more empowered women are also more likely to join co-operatives (Hulme and Mosley 1996; Montgomery 1996) but relatively few studies that examine whether women’s agency also affects their degree of participation within the institution for collective action. It would be very helpful for co-operatives if we could enhance our understanding of those mechanisms and act upon them in order to increase all members’ participation.



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