A cooperative is an association of persons who have voluntarily joined together to achieve a common end through forming a democratic organization, making equitable contributions to the capital required and accepting a fair share of the risks and benefits of the undertaking in which the members actively participate. Cooperatives provide an effective organizational means for combining economic and human resources, and attaining social benefits. They can be significant vehicles in the empowerment and advancement of women to full equality with men.
A set of Cooperative Principles forms the guidelines whereby the global cooperative movement puts its values into practice. A Statement on Cooperative Identity was adopted at the Centennial Congress of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) held in Manchester, United Kingdom, in 1995. The First Cooperative Principle refers to voluntary and open membership, and emphasizes that cooperatives are open to all persons who are able to use the services offered by the cooperative and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership without gender discrimination.
However, gender concerns still need to be addressed in cooperatives. Among the main gender-related issues are women's lack of active participation in cooperatives and their under-representation at decision-making levels. Both are due to a number of economic and socio-cultural factors, gender bias, and legal and political conditions. The traditional role of women in society is probably the largest constraint to their participation in cooperatives and their access to decision-making levels. Women often play a more passive role than men in mixed cooperatives, and men tend to assume leadership roles and are reluctant to share their responsibilities with women.
Cooperative laws and by-laws do not discriminate against women since they uphold the principles of open membership and equal rights of members, but they may discriminate indirectly through membership conditions in mixed cooperatives. For example, many agricultural cooperatives accept only owners of land as members, and in some countries women are not legally permitted to own land, even when they cultivate the family property.
A major contribution of women's cooperatives is in the field of savings and credit, but while the majority of members of those cooperatives are women, the administrative posts are traditionally occupied by men.
In many societies, especially where the domains of men and women are separated, women prefer to organize themselves in women-only cooperatives. A major advantage of such cooperatives is that women directly control their economic activities and have the opportunity of gaining leadership and management experience and increased self-confidence. It must, however, be stated that women-only cooperatives have not in general succeeded in changing the subordinate status of women in society and bringing women into mainstream cooperative activities. It is therefore important that viable women's cooperatives are integrated in or affiliated to secondary or apex organizations ensuring that women participate in decision-making and are represented at the management level.
→ see also Equality of opportunity and treatment in employment
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