Interview with Sabine Martel, gender equality consultant for SSE associations and companies in PACA region (France), member of Osez le Féminisme 84 and expert on women’s cooperatives.
Hello Sabine, how was your commitment to the women’s cooperatives in developing countries born?
In 1998, I was sent to the Philippines by Asmae, an international solidarity association, to set up a sewing workshop for women from underprivileged backgrounds. Since then, I have been particularly interested in women’s cooperatives, convinced that cooperation and the solidarity economy are the basis of women’s empowerment. Back in France, I directed my training and my professional commitments to SSE, with the idea of developing my skills to return to support the development of these women’s cooperatives. I got a post-graduate degree in SSE project design and then joined the France Active network as an employee, and got involved as a volunteer in the governance of associations for inclusion through economic activity. Then in January 2011, after 7 years spent in the France Active network, I traveled around the world for nearly 3 years to visit women’s cooperatives in developing countries. The purpose of this solidarity trip was to immerse myself in their cultures and to understand them from the inside, to better accompany them. Back in France, I joined an activity and employment cooperative to launch my activity as a consultant in SSE. Finally, I completed a Master’s degree in sociology, specializing in gender studies. My research dissertation, defended at the end of 2020, deals with gender relations in SSE, and more specifically with inclusion through economic activity. Through this research thesis, I realize how much all the work I have done in France is marked by my experience with women’s cooperatives in developing countries. And how beneficial it would be to be able to create more bridges and exchanges of practices between developed and developing countries.
Do you think we can find some common points between women’s cooperatives?
During my world tour, I met about 80 women’s organizations in 17 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Although they operate on different continents, without any contact with each other, they have some common points. These women’s cooperatives are mainly active in the textile, handicraft or food-processing sectors. They transfer traditional know-how from the reproductive sphere (the home) to the productive sphere (the business). While men sell raw materials, women transform and process them. But women cannot access national or international markets because they are relegated to the informal and therefore invisible economy. Without the help of Western NGOs or associations, they are confined to local markets and cannot access fair trade networks. However there is a risk of them becoming dependent on these organizations for access to external markets. For example, this is the case of a small basket weavers’ organization in a district of Antsirabé in Madagascar, and of an embroidery cooperative. The French associations that provided them with commercial outlets via their own networks having decided to withdraw and the two groups found themselves in great difficulty. The embroidery cooperative laid off the ¾ of its staff and the basket weavers’ association tried to survive as best it could by selling its hats at a ridiculously low price on the local market.
How do you assess the impact of these female cooperatives?
Sometimes women play a key role in maintaining or boosting local economic activity. UGER in Bama, Burkina Faso, had 9 groups of rice parboilers who employed 540 women at the time of our meeting. Thanks to the promotion of their traditional know-how in the valorization of rice by parboiling, the women have made it possible to preserve the sales of local rice, which was under threat of being replaced by Chinese rice. I was amused to see that the husbands, who sold the raw rice to their wives’ cooperatives, had become economically dependent on them!
In the south of Senegal, in Casamance, a women’s collective has initiated an action to save the mangrove that is under threat of destruction, as is its entire ecosystem, from intensive fishing and poaching.
And at the social level, what are the benefits of these kind of associations?
The financial autonomy of women gained through economic activity also serves as a support for social actions that benefits the entire family, and first and foremost the children. The earnings are intended primarily for the the children’s schooling. It is very important for these women that their children can go to school and claim a better life than that of their parents. Thanks to the cooperative, the women can also access training to improve their skills, become technically professional or take literacy classes. For many of them are illiterate. Literacy is often included in the project of a cooperative, because the autonomy and empowerment of women also requires knowledge.
In India, in Gujarat, cooperatives of women embroiderers are run by literate indigenous people of higher caste. Like the Qasab cooperative, they know how to raise funds; they have stores and sell internationally.
The cooperative is also a way for women to affirm their indigenous identity, as in Mexico (Chiapas), Guatemala, Bolivia or Peru, through traditional weaving. Some of them also use natural dyes made from local plants.
Do you think that these cooperatives empower women?
Yes, of course! Women’s cooperatives cultivate sorority and self-help, like the Self Help Groups in India. As women are considered insolvent, they do not have access to banks. They have therefore found alternative systems, such as collective savings, which work well in rural areas. This is the dominant form of micro-credit in India. SHGs have grown from 500 in the 1990s to nearly 2 million in the 2010s. In Ecuador, women have created the foro de mujeres, an activist network that demonstrates in defense of women’s rights, which are often violated in Latin American countries.
All aspects of women’s cooperatives are a privileged place of expression and empowerment for women. In Bolivia, the country of cooperativism, as well as in Paraguay, I discovered the Escuela de capacitacion integral de las mujeres cooperativistas, a Pan-American school present in 5 Latin American countries, which accompanies women in their journey of political empowerment. In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, this school is coordinated by the Gender Equity Committee of a large and exemplary electricity cooperative, which includes 40% women on its board of directors. The 3 main themes of the training are personal development, cooperative management and political participation. Spaces for dialogue, expression and exchange of experiences have been created for these women. They are also spaces for learning about their rights, where they are heard and respected, both privately and publicly.
Some cooperatives have the support of networks, which, like the “women’s school”, allow for the exchange of practices and moments of Sorority sharing. But at the time I met them, few cooperatives were part of an identified network. In Madagascar, a fair-trade network was emerging in the capital, but the difficulty is to reach rural areas. In Burkina Faso or Mali, women’s groups were often accompanied in their start-up phase by international NGOs, on which they still depend years later. This is also the case in Cambodia or Thailand.
How could SSE intercontinental networks contribute to a real empowerment of these women’s cooperatives?
Belonging to larger networks would allow these women to give visibility to their cooperatives outside their local area and to have opportunities to train and improve their practices. It would also allow them to partner with other businesses to find new commercial outlets for their products, and even to make international connections through fair trade.