We are happy to announce our brand new column: the Toolbox. We have chosen an evocative name, an image that recalls the action of doing. Sometimes, in fact, in order to effectively finalize some action we need to use some specific equipment. We launch it today by putting inside the Toolbox the first tool: the empowerment.
Every month we would like to add a new tool to our box, we would love to fill it with all the useful keys to better read the cooperative world and to become, ourselves, conscious actors within our society.
So, let’s start! Empowerment is a process, more precisely it is the process that leads the individual to the acquisition of self-confidence and self-esteem. It allows the person to take control of his/her own life and it contributes to create awareness of one’s rights.
Empowerment is a dynamic and multi-dimensional concept, which can be easily applied in several contexts: today we focus on women’s empowerment, studying two case studies, the women cooperative in Morocco and in the United States. Ready to fly? Let’s go!
What do the Toudarte and Up&Go cooperatives have in common? Apparently, it seems nothing: different latitudes, different continents and not comparable sectors. Yet, there is a common thread that links the one that produces argan oil in rural Morocco with the one that offers domestic services in New York, the City by definition: women! Better say, the empowerment of women.
The female collective action is the real protagonist of these two stories; and collective action results a crucial node as it activates and reinforces women’s empowerment.
Reading articles and papers, quite often we find the concept of empowerment combined with the specification “women”. That’s because recently, international agencies, governmental and non-governmental bodies as well as academics, have shed light on the centrality of women’s empowerment as an instrument for human development.
Development is the process that drives the expansion of people’s capabilities to live the life that one values or has reason to value, moreover development leads the individual to experience the political, economic and social opportunities. This process represents the base for the individual to exercise agency within the community
Women are crucial to achieve human development, both from an intrinsic and an instrumental point of view. In particular, from an instrumental perspective, women act as a driving force for the expansion of household’s and children’s capabilities. Despite women’s force, figures do not seem to be so comfortable: worldwide only the 55% of women participate in the labour market compared to the 78% of men. In 72 countries, just the fact of being a woman represents an obstacle to access to financial resources and credit. Finally, women take the burden of unpaid work, such houseworks and childcare.
The cooperative stories of Toudarte and Up&Go contribute to raise awareness on two points: firstly, women’s daily commitments and tasks are not the same in all places. In rural Africa, for example, in addition to childcare and domestic chores, women have to fetch water and collect woods to cook. Certainly, in Europe and United States it will not be an easy task to find a woman that has to walk for hours and hours to collect water for domestic needs, anyway it will be quite easy to find women with a job that keeps them at least 8 hours away from their home every day, in addition to the inevitable domestic works and the care of children.
Secondly, although women have to finalize different daily tasks, they still feel the same needs. Whether they are in Morocco or in the United States, women want to make their voices loud, they want to be agents of their own lives and want to take an active role in societal changes. Let’s give a look on how the cooperative can trigger women’s empowerment.
Participation constitutes the first stimulus for trigger changes and enhances women’s empowerment. It acts through several transmission channels: an important one is economic empowerment. Participation in a cooperative can lead to the achievement of an adequate remuneration and a fair income for products and services offered. Aside from the mere, but still important economic aspect, this kind of empowerment is fundamental to reinforce women’s capabilities. Women who have their own source of income have more decision-making power on how to spend it. Several empirical studies have shown that, especially in Sub-Saharan African Countries, women invest more resources on their children’s education and health, triggering a positive effect for future generations.
Furthermore, women who earn just remuneration got the possibility to work fewer hours per day, thus improving the quantity and the quality of their leisure time. We can find the direct evidence of that in the experience of the members of the cooperative Up&Go.
Beyond human development, cooperatives are catalysts for social development: it represents a training ground to exercise democracy, to express individual and collective needs. Cooperative meetings become the perfect space to express member’s ideas and point of view, moreover they constitute the space to raise awareness on the rights that everyone has. Not only the worker’s right, but and more importantly the rights as human beings.
Through active participation in the cooperative, one can build both the individual and the collective identity. The collective identity, which means that one can recognize herself in the other, contributes to enhance women’s empowerment. This is well explained by Cirenia, a member of Up&Go, who sees all the other women as her sisters, as people she can fully trust.
Participation therefore seems to be the key to triggering and evolving women’s empowerment. However, the active participation is not always so immediate: in certain contexts, such as Morocco, women’s participation can be hindered by specific cultural conditions and by the resistance imposed by society. Moreover, the obstacles can be legislative: in some countries, only the head of the household can participate in a cooperative and usually he is a man. However, even if women have the right to participate in a cooperative, they still have to balance paid work with domestic activities and childcare, hence women can face the lack of time as a constraint to take part in a cooperative. Finally, a woman may also choose not to participate because she has poor self-confidence, as a consequence of living in a society that does not encourage her participation in decision-making processes.
Hence, in contexts with specific rules and cultures, an all-women cooperative can represent a protected space where women can express themselves freely while strengthening each other.
Specifically, collective action gives the opportunity to the Toudarte members to overcome certain limits imposed by society. At first, as Fatima tells us, it was not easy to let women join the cooperative. However, her commitment and perseverance were important to convince at first only a few women, who then actually acted as pathfinders for all the other members. The idea of a woman fully empowered by collective action has produced enormous changes in the community.
Therefore, the cooperative stories of Up&Go and Toudarte have shown us how the combination of women and collective action can trigger empowerment. These are stories of collective courage which make possible women’s empowerment and social and cultural changes. The presence of a protected space built by women and for women could be an ideal response in those contexts that actually prevent women’s empowerment within the society.
These spaces are a necessity, but they are anyway a first step: the process of women’s empowerment starts with women, but to be finalized it needs that the whole community is empowered. Legislative, social and cultural changes in society as a whole have to come together to the process of women’s empowerment, which is why the process of empowerment has to involve all the stakeholders within the society.
After framing women’s empowerment, it comes natural that the next tool we will put in our Toolbox regard the process of empowerment in mixed cooperatives. That new equipment will help us understand even more deeply the importance of cooperatives as an instrument for human development, furthermore we will understand what leads a community to choose one type of cooperative rather than another and how cooperative’s action evolves over time.