In honour of Women's History Month (March) and International Women's Day (March 8), the Local Organic Food Co-ops Network has curated a list of fabulous resources on the strong and important role of women within food systems and co-operatives.  Did you know that women in North America had an equal vote in co-ops before they did in the rest of society?

A Million Reasons to Support Women's Co-operatives

A personal account of a visit to the Akoma co-operative in Pusu-Namogo, northern Ghana, by Jessica Hynes

I was particularly moved by the way the women in the 73-strong co-operative operated together as a team, both at work and in their personal lives. What I love is the sense of togetherness. When the women have problems they get together and solve them. They are women running a business, working collectively, supporting each other. By banding together they can make their dream happen.

Shea is known in Ghana as a women’s crop and an additional 350 women work alongside the co-operative members. Many of the women have argued that their husbands should play a role in housework as they are working so hard producing shea butter. To help them in this battle they turn to the co-operative for support. The women were quick to come forward with examples of husbands now helping with the laundry and they all murmur their approval. ‘Now the men are cooking!’ added one.

Reclaiming the Kitchen: Women's History Month Meets the Food Justice Movement

Huffington Post article by Judith Newton, Professor Emerita, Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis

There are signs, for example, that the current food movement, especially in its food justice components, is engaging men and women both in gardening, participating in farmer's markets, cooking and dining together, activities which, they testify, are bringing people together across race, class and gender boundaries. The food movement also seems to be prompting more men to acknowledge the role of pleasure, emotion and even working on the relationship in creating communities that can strive with some coherence for a better world. Both tendencies could draw attention to the fact that creating community requires labor, requires what a colleague once called "earning our relation to each other." Creating community, indeed, demands the very kinds of effort to generate emotional connection and sensitivity that used to be thought of as women's work. If we are to have political communities that unify across boundaries, "women's work" must now be everybody's labor. 

Co-operatives Can Empower All Women

International Women's Day Statements from President of the ICA, Dame Pauline Green, and ICA Gender Equality Chair, María Eugenia Pérez Zea

Many studies have shown there is an essential link in obtaining equal rights for women and reducing poverty, improving health and education alleviating the climate change effects and making headways towards a more sustainable development.

All these objectives are shared by the world co-operative movement, are interdependent and support gender equality and women’s empowerment.


Strength in Numbers

Article from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, in honour of the 2010 International Day of Co-ops

Education, information, and productive assets are among the resources that cooperatives can provide to women in rural areas, empowering them to become active agents of change, FAO said in a message to mark the 3 July observance of the International Day of Cooperatives.

FAO said cooperatives could provide “a safe environment where women increase their self-confidence, identify their own challenges, make decisions and manage risks.” But the Organization also said more needed to be done to boost the participation of women in agricultural cooperatives, and to document their involvement in such organizations.

Making the Food System Work for Women

Ten essays by ten experts, encouraging a global online policy discussion, hosted by Oxfam International.

The forum is intended to reframe the discourse on food security from the perspective of women’s rights and women’s agency. Rather than critique the current state of affairs, the discussion seeks to generate bold proposals for building a collective agenda to advance gender justice within the food system.  Experts include Nidhi Tandon, social activist and director of Networked Intelligence for Development, Elizabeth Vazquez, CEO of WEConnect and a world leader in global supplier diversity, Vandana Shiva, philosopher, feminist and environmental activist, Fatima Shabodien, former director of Women on Farms in South Africa, Alexandra Spieldoch, women’s rights activist, formerly with WOCAN, Tinna Nielsen, senior diversity and inclusion consultant, currently working at Arla Foods, Joanna Kerr, CEO of ActionAid International and former Executive Director of AWID, Sophia Murphy, senior advisor to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Pamela Caro, Chilean feminist researcher working with CLOC-La Via Campesina, Jayati Ghosh, feminist economist and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

The Feminization of Farming

An Op-Ed in the New York Times, written by Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

As sole or principal caregivers, women and girls often face a heavy burden of unremunerated household chores like cooking, cleaning, fetching water, collecting firewood and caring for the very young and the elderly. These uncompensated activities are equivalent to as much as 63 percent of gross domestic product in India and Tanzania. But they result in lost opportunities for women, who don’t have the time to attend classes, travel to markets to sell produce or do other activities to improve their economic prospects.

A 2000 study of developing countries by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that as much as 55 percent of the reduction in hunger from 1970 to 1995 could be attributed to improvements in women’s status in society. Progress in women’s education alone (which explained 43 percent of gains in food security) was nearly as significant as increased food availability (26 percent) and health advances (19 percent) put together.


Closing The Gap Between Men and Women in Agriculture

Short film, produced the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN

Women comprise, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. If they had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. We can’t eliminate hunger without closing the gap between men and women in agriculture. If women farmers had equal access to land, water and credit, they could produce 20 to 30% more food, enough to lift 150 million people out of hunger. Let's close the gender gap in agriculture by creating equal access to DECISION-MAKING and PARTICIPATION... (as well as land, credit, education, agricultural training, seeds, water, legal rights, tools, technologies, and more)!  Check out the FAO's very informative "Did You Know" factsheet on the important role of gender in agriculture.

Women's Rights and the Right to Food 

Report from Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

In the present report, submitted to the Human Rights Council in accordance with Council resolution 13/4, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food discusses the threats to women's right to food, identifying the areas that demand the most urgent attention. The report examines successively the obstacles women face in access to employment, social protection and the productive resources needed for food production, food processing and value chain development. It ends with a recommendation to States to effectively respond to women and girls‟ needs and priorities in their food security strategies and to relieve women‟s unpaid work burden in the household, while at the same time address the specific constraints women face and transforming the existing gendered division of roles. 

Women-Driven Food & Farm Co-ops/Collectives

1.  Cafe Femenino -  Quality coffee bringing equality to life.

Coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world next to oil. Women coffee producers make up 30 percent of the 25 million coffee growers that are responsible for producing 75 percent of the world's coffee. Harsh gender inequality, poverty and abuse are rampant in these coffee production regions. Most women coffee producers have no rights, no income and are abandoned by their husbands.

With determination and desire for a better future, over 460 women coffee producers in Peru united to take a step toward achieving empowerment. This step came in the form of growing, harvesting and producing their own coffee called Café Femenino. Organic Products Trading Company (OPTCO) along with CECANOR Cooperative, PROASSA, CICAP and Cordaid joined forces to support the women in their efforts to achieve their goals. Together, the Café Femenino Coffee Project was founded in 2004.

Today, the Café Femenino Coffee Project is a social program for women coffee producers in rural communities around the world. More than 1,500 women in Bolivia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru are active in the project to achieve empowerment, build social and support networks, and earn incomes through the production and sale of the Café Femenino Coffee. The success of the Project initiated the creation of The Café Femenino Foundation, which provides grants to select programs and projects that enhance the lives of women and their families in coffee growing communities around the world.

The Café Femenino Coffee is imported exclusively by OPTCO and distributed by more than 80 roasters (including Planet Bean, an Ontario-based worker co-op) whom pay a premium above the fair trade price. Café Femenino is high-quality, organic coffee that is left unblended to preserve the acidity, body, flavor and aroma that are unique to each Café Femenino Coffee variety. Café Femenino Coffee is sold at retail locations nationwide. For more information, please visit our coffee sources page.

2. Afghan Women's Catering Group - A woman's collective specializing in delicious traditional foods

The Afghan Women's Catering Group was created in 1997. The primary purpose of this Community Economic Development (CED) project was to alleviate the economic and social hardship experienced by Afghan women and their families living in the Greater Toronto Area, particularly as a result of the cutbacks to social assistance and services. With a small grant from the Toronto Food Policy Council and an in-kind donation of commercial kitchen space at Trinity St. Paul's Center, the women embarked on the first phase of the catering group's development. The participants attended various training workshops on food handling, safety and skills, and small business development. The group was facilitated by a volunteer and guided by a coordinating committee comprised of the participants, as well as volunteers and staff of the Afghan Women's Organization.

3. Gujarat State Mahila Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) Cooperative Federation

The federation is a state - level organisation of 84 women's cooperatives as its members. Registered in 1993, it is the first of its kind. SEWA-sponsored cooperatives took the initiative to form this apex level federation of cooperatives, in order to obtain training, marketing, capacity-building and support for policy action with the government.

In the past six years, the federation's outreach and range of activities has grown considerably. It is very actively assisting producer's groups to export their crafts. In 1999, Rs. 20 lakhs worth of crafts were exported with the Federation's assistance. In particular, the Federation helped two district-level associations, Kutchcraft Association and Banaskantha DWCRA Mahila SEWA Association to export and sell their patchwork embroidery in Paris.

A new and important venture, linking vegetable growers directly with vendors, thereby cutting out exploitative middlemen, was initiated this year. The Federation obtained a shop ( Shop No.40) in the main vegetable wholesale market of Ahmedabad after considerable struggle and pressure from SEWA. The wholesalers, generally themselves middlemen, were reluctant to permit the Federation to break into their tightly controlled trade. But the collective strength of growers and sellers, the Federation SEWA Bank and SEWA prevailed. The shop is now operating and its business expanding. Both vegetable growers and sellers (vendors) are obtaining better prices for their produce, having got rid of the exploitative middle layer of contractors and middlemen. Now the federation is working on providing transportation to reach the produce from SEWA’s rural producer members to the city for sale to SEWA’s retail vegetable vendors.

In 1996, the Federation became a member of the National Cooperative Union of Inida. It has obtained an ‘A’ grade by government auditors for the quality of its services and efficient management.

More Gender Equality in Worker Co-operatives

Short article from the European Confederation of cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises active in industry and services.

There is more gender equality in worker cooperatives in France, Italy or Spain than in other kinds of enterprises.

In Spain, women need up to 82 days to receive the same salary as a man, developing the same activities. Once again, worker cooperatives make the difference as salaries are equal between women and men, reports the Spanish Confederation of Worker cooperatives (COCETA), in the run up to the International Day of Equality between women and men.

Besides that, women in worker cooperatives are present in 50% of the cooperative positions, and in 40% of the responsible ones, far ahead of other enterprise models. This is not only happening in Spain, the main findings of a European Project underline the fact that there is more gender equality in worker cooperatives in France, Italy or Spain than in other kinds of enterprises. 

International Stories

The Didi Society

"Didi" means respected sister in Hindi, representing The Didi Society's cooperative relationship with women’s co-operatives around the world. The Didi Society is a non-profit based in Victoria, BC, with a mission bring positive change to the world by empowering women through just, direct trade and through education and awareness.

The Didi Society partners with women's co-operatives to provide them with a market that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. Through partnerships with women's co-operatives, The Didi Society sustains long-term relationships that guarantee lasting change in the lives of these women, their families, and their communities.

Ugandan Co-operative Pioneers Gender Equality Scheme 

The GALS programme teaches members about gender empowermentThe Bukonzo Co-operative in Western Uganda has 2,400 farmer members and produce some of the finest washed Arabica coffee in the world.

It is made up of 85 per cent of women and has pioneered the methodology ‘Gender Action Learning System’ (GALS), a training programme designed to tackle issues in gender empowerment such as land ownership, and division of labour.

Women in European Worker Co-ops Receive Equal Pay

Although inequality in pay between men and women remains high in Europe, a new survey shows that salaries in worker co-operatives tend to foster gender equality.

According to the findings of the European Project - Active Women in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), there is more gender equality in worker co-operatives across France, Italy and Spain, than in traditional enterprises.

In Spain, women have to work 82 extra days to receive the same salary as a man. France is in a similar situation, with women needing to work 15 months in order to earn as much as men earn in one year, according to Eurostat

Gender Geography: Where is the Best Place in the World to Be a Woman

 In Egypt, where the World Economic Forum says the gender wage gap is 18 cents – women can expect to earn 82 cents for every dollar a man gets. Canadian women, by comparison, can expect to earn about 73 cents, placing us 35th in the ranking.


For more great information on women, co-operatives, agriculture, and food, please visit the following:

La Via Campesina - International Peasants' Movement

WorldWatch - Valuing Women's Work in Agriculture

Nourishing the Planet's "Women" Archive

The Women’s Congress for Future Generations

USC Canada's Report: In Women's Hands

University of Victoria's Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy - Women in Co-ops


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