Don’t compete, cooperate

  • The savings and credit concept has proven to be an effective tool to empower women

Apr 14, 2019-

There was a time when women had to go to a money lender with utensils as collateral to borrow even one hundred rupees. After the establishment of women’s savings groups, women have been able to take part in various income generating activities. Examples of such include vegetable production, retail shops, livestock raising etc. Thanks to them entering the entrepreneurial space, these women can now earn for themselves. Women led cooperatives now deal with large sums.  These groups have been doing so well for themselves that most own their own buildings. However, a trend has emerged, wherein the bigger, male-controlled cooperatives have started eyeing the wealth these women generate.

To date, there are 35,000 cooperatives, with a total membership of over 700,000; out of which 50 percent are women-controlled. In terms of women running the cooperatives, there are nearly 4,000 of them. The basic idea of cooperatives is to co-exist and help each other. But as bigger entities try to swallow the smaller ones, the basic idea of establishing cooperatives stands defeated.

The Government of Nepal had introduced a policy that encouraged the merging of banks. Taking a leaf out of the government’s decision, the cooperatives that are run by men introduced a merger policy in cooperatives in 2013. But the policy never mandated a merger; it was supposed to be voluntary.

But still, it seems that the trend thereafter has been to take over women-led cooperatives that have been doing well but are unaware of the non-obligatory nature of the policy. These bigger financial institutions that want to take over women-led cooperatives are pressuring to pass a policy that specifies minimum member requirements. Naturally, cooperatives with smaller membership numbers will have to either try and find new members, or be forced to merge with other groups.

Slowly, women-led groups are beginning to open up, sharing that they are being approached with merger proposals. In some cases, women explain that they are threatened with negative consequences, should they refuse these merger proposals.

If we look around, cooperatives have proven to be one of the best practices for the economic empowerment of women and girls. Given that, women who run cooperatives do not want to merge simply because they do not want to lose their identity and their autonomy of decision-making.

Twenty-eight years ago, I started a women’s savings group because I wanted poor women to work and become financially independent. When women are financially independent, it leads to social, cultural and political empowerment. The forceful mergers of these women-led groups into bigger, male-dominated institutions defeat the empowering effect of cooperatives. Women still have limited bargaining and decision-making power and their work is often under-valued. Given that, merging cooperatives will threaten women’s opportunity to lead decision-making.

When these women were not financially strong, they were often overlooked. However, forming cooperatives have made them able to support themselves; their economic and social conditions have improved drastically. Women are feeding their children, sending them to school, and even employing their husbands. The savings and credit concept has proven to be an effective tool to empower the weak in society. Through this movement, women who were previously deprived of bare minimums are now entrepreneurs.

The new policy that seeks the merger of cooperatives is not in the interest of disadvantaged women, because these financial institutions are not in distress. At this point, women running such institutions do not need a helping hand, nor do they want to entertain unnecessary interference. They are self-sufficient, to say the least. Hence, they do not really need to be rescued.

Approximately Rs11 billion has been lost, when one hundred and thirty cooperatives went belly up. Intervention by the healthier cooperatives makes sense to save the weaker ones. But taking over of  institutions that are thriving will have a negative impact . For instance, when an elderly woman who is 75 years old wants a loan, she cannot access any line of credit except with cooperatives, because banks won’t entertain them after the age of 50.

The role of government bodies such as Cooperative Department, National Cooperative Development Board, Cooperative Research and Education Center and Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation needs to be supporting the financial independence of the marginalised. They should be increasing public support for rural women in cooperatives while respecting their autonomy and independence.

Subedi is a social worker

Published: 14-04-2019 08:24

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