Rita Schäfer / Parto Teherani-Krönner

An overview of women's work in rural areas
Organisational structures, the securing of food supplies, and co-operation between women

Co-operation between women is a reflection of the basic challenges and planning that are crucial for the development of rural areas, involving the preservation of the environment and bio-diversity, and the fair distribution of resources. Furthermore, each group of women is a base from which women can develop their skills, enabling them to participate in decision- making processes locally and nationally. Women's self-help organisations contribute to the achievement of aims such as non-sexist human development.

A comparison between women's organisations in different cultures demonstrated the fundamental similarities and differences in such co-operation. Both women in traditional rural societies and women in industrialised countries have formed co-operatives and local organisations which pursue economic aims.

A closer look into the structures of such organisations reveals the importance of transparency and democratic processes, and the securing of food supplies, in the co-operatives. Also, both the age range and individual levels of income are significant. It is interesting to see how open many groups are to technical innovations, provided that these innovations lighten the workload and that women are in control of the technology. Many women decide to become members of women's organisations because they feel that, in mixed co-operatives, men are dominant in every respect. They control the decision-making process, the income, and the organisation of work. In mixed co-ops, women have realised again and again that this kind of economic group doesn't live up to its claim to be transforming society, because society's gender hierarchy remains in place. The huge amount of work done by women is not respected in mixed co-operatives; also the 'work' of maintaining a household is not recognised as having an economic value.

Women's groups are fighting this by recognising the work of their members as essential and also helping women to overcome their differences. Further, they make sure that all women play an active role in decision-making processes, and also work to improve individual members' access to information, loans, and markets. Women's groups also find it important for women to gain management skills through education and training programmes, so that they can take part in decision-making processes and take on leadership roles. In this way women improve their skills, and gender equality is put into practice.

Improvement of living conditions through women's groups
Besides active participation in decision-making processes, the fair distribution of co-operatively-generated profits is one means by which organisations secure a living, and a food supply, for their members. Networking with other women's groups can help groups to open up more room for manoeuvre within the law and realise their own economic interests.

In addition to institutional reflections, the social context should not be overlooked, because this shapes the co-operative. The co-operative's daily work offers the opportunity to solve personal problems together. For many women the support of like-minded people is an important motivation for joining a local organisation. Working with others helps them to take better care of their families and to build up new forms of social security. The latter is further guaranteed if individual groups belong to larger associations of non-governmental organisations and thereby have access to information. Furthermore, such integration within national and international women's, environmental, or farmers' movements can be important when representing their interests before government institutions.

Socio-cultural roots and the development potential of women's groups
Modern women's groups hark back to a long history of diverse forms of co-operation. In many regions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, women's co-operation was well-established before colonial times. They contributed to the organisation of the work of cultivating, processing and selling food, thereby helping to secure the food supply. Furthermore they passed on agricultural and ecological wisdom, and their skills in handicrafts and trade. The equal sharing of work and food crops were the main underlying principles. Egalitarian decision-making processes, and hierarchies based on the power of older women, formed the organisational framework of those groups.

Beside their economic function, organisations of women also had social, religious and political importance. They performed ceremonies according to the cycle of the year, or to mark the stages in a woman's life. In West Africa some leaders of women's groups also held political leadership roles, which they tried to defend against the colonial powers. Modern women's groups build on these traditions and try to adapt them to the social, economic and ecological conditions of modern times. As such, women's groups may be seen as a useful form of organisation through which women can take up new opportunities and play an active part in decision-making, for example on land reform.

In many places today, it is the women's groups which put up a resistance when confronted with political volatility. Meanwhile, many NGOs and ministries of agriculture have discovered the development potential of women's groups, hence the current challenge is not to be subsumed by governmental or party political interests. Only by avoiding this eventuality can they go on pursuing their aims of securing food supply, using resources sustainably, and gender equality in rural development.

Women's co-operatives in Iran: statutory co-operation?
In rural areas of Iran, traditional co-operative structures still exist which draw women into economic and social networks. Social duties and religious rites bring together women of different ages and social status. Their mutual exchange and support is in the context of agricultural produce and seasonal labour, for example when working together in the fields or marketing produce. In nomadic societies, too, these forms of organisation are essential for survival. For many centuries, the 'Vareh' groups have ensured that women who individually had only few dairy cows would share milk with each another; hence poorer women have ongoing access to the resources to make cheese and yoghurt.

Further, such groups are important institutions for preserving a society's communication structures in rural areas, and for providing a system of social security. Today, however, these traditional ways are in competition with new economic models, for example co-operatives. But in Iran, these co-operatives are not being built on the already-existing structures. Since 1993 the government has been setting up new women's co-operatives, supported by UN organisations. This activity is an expression of the government's duty to promote women according to national and international political guidelines. However, it is worth examining whether the government-formulated statutes for women's co-operatives genuinely expand women's sphere of activity, or whether they actually hamper co-operation.

In the mid-nineties and at the time of the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, rural women and women's co-operatives won special attention. The objectives of the new co-operatives are broad. They include facilitating access to loans, markets, and the forums of decision-making. A further objective is to offer training programmes in agriculture and trade. In other words, the co-operatives try to cover every aspect of agricultural production, including food processing and marketing. All activities serve to improve women's living conditions. The combination of all these objectives in women's co-operatives in Iran has brought some success, which isn't only apparent in the economic sense. The institutionalising of women's organisations made rural women's work visible and hence, for the first time, respected. Women in Iran produce the colourful carpets which, after oil, are the second most important export. But because their work is carried out in rural households, there is no statistical record of it. In very poor agricultural areas with low agricultural productivity, carpet production provides up to ninety per cent of a household budget and secures the family's food supply.

The 'La Surenita' co-operative in Honduras: a women's development project.
On an uneconomical cashew-nut plantation, women created work-parties to process the nuts and also apples using a labour-intensive method. This was the start of 'La Surenita', whose members are drawn from three neighbouring villages. The aim of the project is to provide work for women so that they can earn a living.

The foundation of the co-operative was the women's response to a law which prohibits an independent producer from owning land. Since its foundation, the women's negotiating power with the authorities has fundamentally improved, backed up by democratic structures within the co-operative through which representatives are elected. These representatives campaign for the right to own land and for the official recognition of the co-operative. Inadequate education and the breakdown of traditional families also need addressing, since more than seventy percent of women are single mothers and have to provide for up to nine people in their households. The co-operative provides women with new economic prospects in the contexts of production and marketing, and training and education programmes help to give them a new confidence. The co-operative has inherently improved women's overall situation, because they can now earn their own living and obtain loans. Furthermore, women can receive financial help in an emergency, and can expect a small pension. In strengthening women's co-operation and organisation, the co-operative promotes the socio-economic development of the three villages.

La Surenita demonstrates that projects which realise women's economic aims can bring about medium- and long-term improvements. This is primarily due to all women receiving regular training in production techniques, administration, and politics, and also because members are in control of all the administration and marketing. However women's economic opportunities do depend on their age and circumstances: for a single mother, the income is only just enough to feed a nine-person household, whereas other women can start building their own house. A current challenge for the co-operative is how to deal with conflicts arising from this situation.

As women gain more self-confidence due to their earnings, men withdraw more and more from their family responsibilities and use their sporadic income exclusively for their own interests. In this sense, women's economic success has created a new gender conflict. Although some married women complain about these difficulties with their husbands, they still see the co-operative as a chance to build their future.

The future of women's groups: prospects for pursuing development co-operatively
Development planning should take more account than it has previously of local dynamics in gender relations and acknowledge socio-economic differences, in order to support women's groups in a way which doesn't further disadvantage those involved. Planning processes which are open to participation can help strengthen both traditional and modern co-operatives, and encourage local approaches to problem-solving.

The main focus of support should be on the promotion of women's skills, knowledge and imagination. By combining economic and ecological aims with social and cultural aims, as well as taking into account the personal circumstances of their members, women's groups secure the supply of food and open new spheres of activity to women. Within the co-operative, the critique of social change and gender-dominated labour-division provides a starting-point from which women can develop new approaches to organising work and thereby call into question the male-dominated employment market.

With the establishment of democratic decision-making structures, the groups can become institutions which represent women's interests to other organisations and governmental institutions.

From: Contraste - Monatszeitung fur Selbstorganisation No.189, June 2000.


Email: Parto Teherani-Krönneri
Parto Teherani-Krönner is an Iranian sociologist. She studied sociology, specialising in agriculture and development. Her doctorate is in environmental sociology from a humanitarian, cultural-ecological perspective. Today she is General Secretary of the German Society for Humanitarian Ecology. She has been the Chair of the Department of Women's Studies in the Faculty of Agriculture, Humboldt University, Berlin since the department's foundation in 1993, where her specialist subject is 'women in rural development'. She has conducted field-studies in Iran and Germany. Some of her publications are: 'Human- und kulturökologische Ansaetze zur Umweltforschung' (1992); 'Handlungsspielräume von Frauen in Agrarkulturen' (1997); 'Women in Rural Production, Household and Food Security: An Iranian Perpective' (1999); 'Frauen in der Ländlichen Entwicklung' (co-editor of the series and conference reports, 1995, 1997, 1999)

Email: Rita Schäfer
Dr Rita Schäfer is an ethnologist at the Institute of Ethnology at the Freie Universität, Berlin. She was formerly a visiting lecturer in rural women's studies and on women in rural development, in the Faculty of Agriculture, Humboldt University, Berlin. Her specialist subjects are: gender and development, and African women's organisations. Most recent publications: 'Gender und ländlicher Entwicklung in Afrika, eine kommentierte Bibliographie ( Lit-Verlag, Münster, 2000).

  LINK TO: Humboldt-Universität Berlin, Landwirtschaftliche-Gärtnerische Fakulität