Empowering Women in Housing Cooperatives: Lessons from USAID CLEAR Program Supported Cooperatives in Kenya – By Fredrick Nyagah and Tindi Sitati.

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According to the Africa Human Development Report 2016 there will be slightly more than 1.2 billion women in Africa by 2050, with the potential economic loss projected to be much higher if gender parity is not actively pursued and attained.  While there is less data on women’s participation in cooperatives in Kenya, it is true that women represent 30% of cooperative membership according to data from the International Cooperative Research Group. According to ILO, this under representation is not just on membership but also at leadership level and number of staff employed by cooperatives. At the same time, as the number of cooperatives increases nationwide, women’s participation in cooperatives is on the rise with studies indicating that women cooperative members perform better economically compared to those who are none members – an indication that cooperatives do play a big role towards the achievement of gender equality.

In order to increase women’s membership and leadership in cooperatives, we must better understand under what circumstances they are participating meaningfully and what barriers they are experiencing. The Cooperative Leadership Engagement Advocacy and Research (CLEAR) Program implemented by Global Communities in Kenya has conducted a series of focus group discussions with two housing cooperative boards of management and members to explore women’s participation in their cooperative activities. A total of 11 members (7 women and 4 men) participated in this discussion.

Through the dialogue, members shared ways in which they feel women’s participation in housing cooperatives can be enhanced. The cooperatives identified; A shift in mindset on the traditional role of women, as a key determinant of increased women participation in their cooperatives. Due to cultural perceptions on women’s and men’s roles and the result of this in division of labor, women cooperative members are expected to be responsible for home and family maintenance, while men own the houses, and manage all land issues. Women interviewed felt that they needed a level playing field where they were recognized not just as mothers and wives but as equal members of the housing cooperative where just like men, they can own homes and exercise their voice in decision making.

Women’s leadership is not embraced by the local culture due to the belief that leadership is the responsibility of men. Unfortunately, many of the cooperative leaders interviewed expressed this cultural norm which has left women out of decision-making positions. Excluding women from decision making has negative outcomes beyond equality, it is actually poor business. Businesses with more diversity in leadership have better business performance.  Cooperative membership makes women feel more confident and aware of their leadership role in the community, as reported by one of the members interviewed. ‘‘Alongside being a member of the housing cooperative, I also advocate against Gender Based Violence (GBV) and sensitize my community on issues related to HIV. My community now recognizes me as an active cooperative member and community leader’’ she explained.

‘Women shy away from pursuing leadership roles because they fear that they will be seen to compete with men, which is taboo in some places’ Grace Oyemba, Member – Vision 4 Housing Cooperative.


Women are looking for flexibility

Due to the cultural norms expecting women to care for the household and children, women are often left with little or no time to participate in cooperative meetings and activities. This phenomenon is true beyond the cooperative model; in a post-covid world many are advocating for ongoing virtual options which offer more flexibility. Women often need more flexibility than their male colleagues. Kenyan cooperatives are no different.

‘Sometimes women members feign sickness to avoid attending the cooperative meetings, they are just exhausted’ Sophy Okotta, Board Member – Uprising Housing Cooperative.

Cooperatives can increase women’s participation by having flexible times for meetings either during the evening or weekends and surveying members on the time and locations that are most convenient. Cooperative leaders should consider dates, time and meeting durations that would enable women to participate fully. Members interviewed also proposed the idea of hiring baby care services on the cooperative premises, to provide more support for women with children at home. While there are other barriers to virtual meetings, online and phone options may also encourage increased women’s participation by minimizing the need to travel to a central location.


Engaging Men

Deliberate and targeted engagement of men is increasingly recognized as an important step to advancing women’s participation in cooperatives. Members interviewed felt that in as much as men have a role to play, they also act as huge barriers to women’s participation especially when they discourage their wives and partners to join cooperatives. Men can be engaged at family, household or cooperative level. At family and household level, men can support women as care givers and share responsibilities for house hold chores, allowing women to participate more fully. Men can also support women financially by providing business development and network opportunities, and access to finance that is mostly not available to women due to gender barriers. At the cooperative level, men can advocate for women’s access to land and property ownership and they can become agents of change and take action against negative societal stereotypes and attitudes.

Members interviewed shared that inviting male relatives and husbands to attend gender sensitization trainings and business workshops conducted by the cooperative will support in increasing understanding of how men can and should support women.  The CLEAR Program has developed an extensive docket of gender training modules which focus on transformative gender norms among cooperative members to address the power dynamics between men and women.


Cooperatives’ role in supporting women participation

Through partnerships with local and national stakeholders, cooperatives can work towards collecting gender disaggregated data that informs policies and programs directed towards women member needs. Cooperatives’ gender policies need to address the housing needs of women and promote their participation at all levels. These policies can include mandatory member training on gender sensitivity to specific quotas for women in management positions, skills development programs for women and cultural gender campaigns.

Cooperatives should also develop gender committees that work specifically with women members and their spouses in identifying gender related challenges facing members and recruiting more women as members. Cooperatives can also play a role in the community as gender equality educators through providing education and training to change perceptions about gender. It is advisable for the gender committee to be involved in decision making and policy design for the cooperative in order to effect the necessary changes required to ensure maximum participation by women.

Findings from this CLEAR cooperative interviews underscore the importance of positive gender norms, meaningful engagement with men, women, and the community, and gender accommodating household flexibility in contributing to the increase in women participation in cooperatives.