Africa. Women in the developing world. The garment industry. In today’s political climate, when we hear these things, we instantly react almost viscerally, expecting to hear something somber. We think of injustice, violence, sweatshops and, most often, poverty. Now when these things are combined into one topic, “African women in the garment industry”, we expect even more negativity. While it’s true that there are indeed many injustices and troubles that this group faces, there is also another story. A story of hope, a story of women banding together in a sisterhood and supporting each other, economically and personally, through cooperatives. This is the story I want to tell today.
The International Co-operative Alliance defines a co-operative as an “autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”. A co-operative provides its members with support and a stake in its future. These are incredibly valuable things for marginalized communities such as women who have often been held back by traditional gender roles and have had their autonomy taken from them. The ability for them to have ownership in their work is pivotal, as is the support that the co-operative provides. Indeed, cooperatives are powerful vehicles of social inclusion and political and economic empowerment of their members. In the words of Stefania Marcone of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) Gender Equality Committee, “Through cooperatives, millions of women have been able to change their lives – they have found through the cooperative enterprise a route towards self- empowerment and development that works for them.”
Co-operatives can be formed for every industry, from healthcare to finance, and indeed for the garment and fashion industry as well. In countries across Africa, from Ghana to Tanzania to Rwanda, women’s co-operatives are changing the fashion industry. In Ghana, the Dzidefo Women’s Cooperative brings together local women who who make toddler clothing, home accessories (such as laundry bags and cushion covers), and school uniforms for children in need. This co-operative sells the items but also asks for donations from people abroad to help those parents who cannot buy clothing for their children. This is a great example of a co-operative which helps everybody, the women get employment and economic independence, the children in the community get clothing and potential donors get the knowledge that their donations will be used to truly help the community. In Rwanda, a country torn apart by genocide and left with a population made up of 70% women, many co-operatives, such as Rwanda knits, emerged which helped rebuild the community and which continue to provide financial and economic stability. Rwanda Knits, a cooperative supported by many organizations such as USAID and Women for Women, has “enabled over 1,200 women to earn a living through making and selling their knitted goods. The organization has provided over 600 knitting machines and training to women in 17 associations throughout the country. The project has been described as one of USAID Rwanda’s most successful income-producing projects. This organization is now fully sustainable and able to provide the knitters a living wage for them and their families. Similar initiatives and goals are now being reached in countries in Africa and beyond.
The future is very bright for co-operatives, as big brands such as Anthropologie, Kate Spade and J.Crew are starting to work with co-operatives to offer their products as they are often very high quality and beautiful goods. Retail stores are, slowly but surely, responding to consumers who want to purchase more ethically produced and environmentally friendly products. However, co-operatives need not rely on large manufacturers to change their practices, due to the advent and popularity of the web, today co-operatives can often market their products directly through sites such as https://shopsoko.com/ and https://zady.com/. Co-operatives are a great benefit to women and their broader communities, as numerous studies show that they not only provide a large economic benefit but also lead to their members to have “increased self-esteem and a sense of solidarity and support, particularly in times of need”. There are challenges to forming cooperatives, such as navigating social mores, providing access to technologies, and reaching profitable markets. However, these challenges are being faced and overcome by more and more women in Africa every day and will only be only get easier as these women join together and form stronger co-operatives and by doing so, stronger communities.
About the Author
Aazir loves to explore many fields of knowledge, especially the 4 P's: Physics, Programming, Philosophy, and Poetry. At anytime he can be found producing code, perusing epic poetry, pontificating about Plato, or pondering multiple dimensions. He's an award-winning public speaker and is passionate about speaking out on social justice issues.