YCI loves getting updates from alumni on what new programs and adventures they become involved in and where they end up professionally. Lisa Gaudry volunteered with YCI in Costa Rica for 5-weeks in 2007. You can read about Lisa and how volunteering with YCI has spurred her on personally, academically and professionally in her previous blog post here: https://ycicanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/the-world-is-your-oyster-how-my-path-began-in-costa-rica/. Lisa has recently returned from a CIDA internship in Rwanda and YCI is happy showcase this accomplishment.
Agricultural Co-operatives as a Vehicle For Positive Change: My Internship Experience in Rwanda
I recently completed a 9-month internship in Rwanda with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) through the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA). The focus of the project is to improve agricultural productivity, food security and gender equality in 15 agricultural co-operatives. In partnership with a local non-governmental organization UGAMA/CSC, I worked as the Gender Program Officer on behalf of CCA.
Rwanda is a small landlocked country inhabited by approximately 11.7 million people, and has the highest population density in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than 80% of the population relies on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods. In rural areas, where the majority of the poor reside, agriculture is the main source of income and employment. Nearly 77% of the country’s population live below the poverty line and roughly 51% live in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 a day. According to the United Nations Development Programme, Rwanda remains one of the world’s poorest countries.
Women in Rwanda comprise 86% of the labour force in agriculture and animal husbandry. Additionally, they are responsible for household food security, supplying their family’s basic needs, ensuring the family’s wellbeing, and caring for the children. Despite their significant involvement in agricultural activities, women continue to have less access to resources and opportunities than men.
Rwandan society is characterized by a patriarchal social structure that underlies the unequal power relations between men and women, boys and girls. This has translated into male dominance and women’s subordination. Women work 14 to 17 hour days, reducing their ability to participate in additional income earning opportunities, capacity development, or decision-making positions in the community. They lack access to capital, assets and productive resources for farming and income generation, thus continue to face disproportionate constraints in relation to men in accessing the regular workforce. In their homes, they lack decision-making power in regards to income and resources. Furthermore, they continue to have lower levels of education and higher rates of illiteracy, also limiting their ability to participate in decision-making or governance bodies and committees.
After the genocide, women in Rwanda made up approximately 70% of the population. Today, this number is closer to 55% though still represents the majority, and roughly 30% of households in the country are female-headed. Although there have been numerous efforts and some key achievements, gender inequalities still exist in Rwanda and continue to cause problems especially in the lives of women. As gender inequalities hamper socioeconomic growth, gender equality is necessary for poverty alleviation.
Co-operatives are used in Rwanda as an effective tool to respond to social and economic challenges causing poverty throughout the country. They are a key organizational form of community development that emphasize rural economic transformation, human resource development, promotion and development of the private sector, and poverty reduction mainly in rural areas.
In the CCA/CIDA project, agricultural co-operatives are formed and used to reduce poverty and bring women into the formal economy through employment and economic opportunities. As a democratic means of social mobilization, co-operatives have an active role in the healthy, gender-inclusive development of communities and societies. Numerous studies indicate that women are more often concerned with social development issues; therefore, women participating in co-operative movements become agents of social change thereby improving the socioeconomic situation of their families and communities.
Although co-operative values are ones of self-help, mutual responsibility, equality and equity, they do not automatically translate into gender equality. They do however, provide a space for gender equality to be reinforced within these values; co-operative principles facilitate the implementation of broader equality and non-discriminatory agendas.
As part of the CCA/CIDA gender equality initiatives, I conducted a gender analysis in the 15 project co-operatives using focus groups as the primary research method to ensure an inclusive, participatory process. The focus groups provided a space for men and women from the co-operatives to express their concerns and share insight into the issues creating or reinforcing gender inequalities. This provided the project organizations with first-hand experiences and knowledge as to what should be addressed within the project and how. The purpose was to discover the practical and strategic gender needs and interests of the women and men in the co-operatives – which is crucial in terms of achieving gender equality – and gain a better understanding of how and to what extent the co-operatives’ activities impact women and men respectively, as well as in relation to each other. This enabled both men and women to articulate themselves despite structural inequalities within their society, and guide the co-operatives’ activities based on their needs and wants as opposed to having a project imposed on them. While acknowledging the differential impact of project initiatives on men and women, the results are being used to inform the development of the project to ensure that it is gender-sensitive and gender equitable at all levels.
Though there still exist inequalities in the co-operatives, such as men currently holding the majority of decision-making and leadership positions within co-operatives and having better access to extension services, some improvements toward gender equality have been made and continue to be made. For example, agricultural co-operatives in Rwanda have increased agricultural productivity; increased household food security; increased household incomes; increased employment rates; and have increased financial opportunities for the rural poor. They have also benefitted women directly in a number of ways, by providing: women with a space to network and form self-help groups as well as microfinance groups which gives them access to credit that they typically do not have through formal savings and credit institutions, especially as widows; access to training and information sessions to develop new skills; primary or secondary sources of income; increased literacy rates; and, perhaps most importantly, a space for women to express themselves and speak on their behalf, to have a voice. These are all stepping-stones toward achieving gender equality and reducing poverty.
While there is much focus on the role of women being in subordinate positions, it must be emphasized that initiatives such as co-operatives working toward gender equality do not seek to benefit women only. This particular project includes a specific focus on women, not necessarily as a special marginalized interest group, rather as a largely representative group, as gender equality cannot be achieved without efforts from both men and women to ensure sustainability.
Co-operative values in themselves are inclusive, do not discriminate and seek to work against structural inequalities rooted in socio-cultural norms at community and household levels. In many areas, the nearest institutions to the poor are the local co-operatives, therefore, strengthening their overall capacity and gaining an increasingly better understanding of gender equality in providing equitable opportunities for both men and women, will further promote positive changes. As co-operatives are essentially a tool for sustainable social and economic development where people are grouped together working toward a common goal using shared resources, ensuring gender equality as part of the process will therefore reduce poverty more efficiently. Though these changes are often a lengthy process, whether they happen for small group of people or only for one person at a time, they make a world of difference.
– Lisa Gaudry, Youth Ambassador, Costa Rica 2007