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Building Solidarity Through Women-Led Community-Based Organizations

Posted by Ariel Halpern Friday, February 13, 2015

By Tanya Lutvey, PROCASUR; tlutvey@procasur.org

Throughout the entire learning experience in Nepal in late 2014, the 20+ participants (or “routeros”) had the opportunity to engage with various host cases who are successfully promoting women’s empowerment. We met women who were vocal leaders in their communities, who were equally participating in the implementation of their household activities and actively working against negative gender stereotypes, inequalities and exclusion faced at household and village levels.

Parvati, for instance, a member of the Pragatishil Agriculture Cooperative in Kapilvastu District, kindly shared her story with the “routeros”. She used to live in a one-room mud house. Societal norms and expectations prevented her from fulfilling her own potential and she was unable to leave her home, show her face, work, or even talk to any strangers. Women in this community were not even able to answer the door if there was no man at home. But things have changed since the cooperative was began distributing small loans and supporting new businesses and income generation activities. Since Parvati’s engagement with the cooperative which allowed her to access a small financial loan, she now heads a house of 11 people and operates a small mustard seed oil business with support from the cooperative. A far cry from the days when she was not even able to answer the door.

Parvati is only one of the many disadvantaged women we met, who had had had their life transformed by a women-led community based organization. Another example, being when participants visited Small Farmer Agriculture Cooperative Limited (SFACL), Khaireni Parsha, in Chitwan District allowing them another opportunity to witness how a women-led small farmer cooperative could also positively affect household dynamics. A little about SFACL Khaireni Parsha: the Agro Cooperative has a membership base of 1953 women. The female-only SFACL was established in 2004 and, operating out of its own building in Chitwan District, is currently engaging with micro-finance, banking, enterprises, youth employment, and income generating activities such as fish, piggeries, banana plantations, cow’s, organic farming, community forestry, bio-gas and community irrigation. In 2008 they even received a national award from the Small Farmers Development Bank as an example of excellent cooperative at national level.

During our visit, the members of the Khaireni Parsha cooperative highlighted key success factors, as well as the impacts and changes they have observed in the livelihood of its members thanks to the wide range of activities and opportunities made available by the cooperative within their community. One of the major changes is empowerment of women in the area, which has catalyzed various other positive changes. The opportunity to participate and benefit from profitable economic activities and training initiatives has increased women’s self-esteem, their capacity to speak in public, and their ability to share their knowledge and sensitize their family members, which has further enhanced their decision-making role at the household level and within the community.

 All the cooperatives the LR visited - Pragatishil Agriculture Cooperative, the SFACL Khareini Parsha and Devitar Leasehold Forests Users Group -  have also prompted changes in the role of women as leaders and managers. In the case of SFACL Khareini Parsha, all of the Board’s members are women and they have improved their decision-making skills, and their capacity for working together. Often in rural development we see that there is a gap between women’s contribution to agricultural production, marketing and rural livelihoods, and their voice in making decisions that affect their communities. The Nepali experience proves that women’s presence in and the leadership roles played in some organizations women’s is a first crucial step to ensure that women have their priorities heard so that they can contribute to the development of their families and communities. Therefore the changes observed in women’s roles are not only economical, but also social and cultural. 

On another note, one of the success factors of the LR technique is the provision of a forum whereby participants are able to think critically about implementations they visited. For example, Manop Bunyuenkun, our participant from the Akha indigenous community in Thailand, recognized the limitations of such a female-only system: "Men should be involved in the process of women's empowerment. Often men will be involved because they receive something out of it, but not because they understand or support women's empowerment." Indeed such a dynamic was evident in the familial roles of some of the loan beneficiaries we met during our journey. For example, where loans could only be facilitated through the membership of the wife, it was in fact, the husband who would be running the business, and thus maintaining control over household income.

Like most development strategies, we can learn much from the case of Khaireni Parsha and the rest of the cooperatives for that matter. Likewise, when it comes to women’s empowerment, there is still much more we need to understand. But when it came to the parting words from the women of Khaireni Parsha, it was all very simple; "Women's empowerment is much easier done in a group, where we have support and a warm hand to hold."

PROCASUR/IFAD: Learning Route on Women’s Empowerment, New Businesses and Sustainable Natural Resource Management. Nepal, 6-13 December 2014. For more insights and learning route contents please visit: http://asia.procasur.org/women-empowerment-new-business-and-sustainable-nrm-in-nepal-2014/.