Gender equality and women’s economic empowerment through grassroots planning.
By Laura Atlas
In Seevalipura, an informal settlement in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a woman-owned cooperative called Sri Lanka Women’s Development Services Cooperative Society (Women’s Coop) began providing member access to short-term financial credit. Before its inception, poor residents depended on money lenders who charged exorbitant monthly interest rates as high as 20%. Established in 1989, the Women’s Coop provides “resources, ideas and support of its own members to raise their socio-economic and cultural status on the principle of self-help and mutual help without depending on a never-ending chain of government and external support” (Philbrighty, 2015, p. 2). The structure of the cooperative is a bottom-up, member-focused formation of small groups of five to 15 women who live in the same neighborhood and who agree to save a designated, minimum amount each week. Independent from government control and comprised of mostly homemakers, unpaid family laborers, and family breadwinners, the Women’s Coop has expanded into ten nationwide clusters or “branches” and is overseen by the cooperative’s National Executive Council. Although the Women’s Coop began primarily as a credit and banking service, it currently focuses on financial solidarity for income protection, disaster rehabilitation and resettlement, community infrastructure development, and healthcare. More broadly it aims to alleviate poverty, build confidence, and improve social conditions for women and families.
The Women’s Coop members receive services that are not provided by the Sri Lankan government, such as healthcare, education, disaster relief, and affordable housing. Since the Sri Lankan state is “shirking its responsibility to provide for the poor and behaving illegitimately” (Cirolio, 2017, p. 45; see also Escobar, 2012, Cavalcanti, 2007). The Women’s Coop had to take on the financial responsibility of meeting basic needs for themselves, their families, and the community due to a lack of social services and infrastructure support. When poor women living in informal settlements need to buy school supplies for their kids, purchase a home, or recover from natural disasters, they must rely on the collective support of their small mutual help group rather than social programs funded by the government. By transferring responsibility for basic human rights to the members of the Women’s Coop, the state relies on the “legitimation and citizens’ perception of inclusion to achieve hegemonic power. . .through citizens’ consent and perceptions of inclusion” (Miraftab, 2009, p. 33).
In addressing deep-seated issues of gender inequality, the Women’s Coop exists in large part to minimize the “feminization of poverty” or the poverty trap born from both vertical and horizontal inequalities. Especially difficult for women trying to work their way out of chronic poverty are the unexpected “shocks” such as illness, death, and loss of income (Kabeer, 2015). Through its savings programs, the Women’s Coop has applied mechanisms to overcome the unequal ways in which “poverty relates to asymmetries in the extent to which men and women are able to dispose of their own labor or enjoy command over the labor of others” (Kabeer, 2015, pp. 195).
A major goal embraced by the Women’s Coop is encouraging “women to challenge their own subordinate position within patriarchal households” though microfinancing and opportunities for entrepreneurship, empowerment, and a decrease in poverty. (Young, 2010, p. 607). However, the “financialization” of communities in many cases creates more of a benefit for males than females within a household, increases incidences of domestic violence, and “may also structure and limit (women’s) spatial mobility in other important ways” (Young, 2010, p. 609). Disparities exist among members and member groups living in areas harder hit by a disaster such as the Tamil resettlements, economic protection is based on individual savings with no opportunities to redistribute resources, and newcomers to the program are excluded from certain financial opportunities until they receive full status in the program (Midgley & Hosaka, 2011). Despite these challenges, however, the Women’s Coop has over 25,000 members in 16 of the 24 districts in Sri Lanka and has provided economic opportunities and independence for women and their families over the last 30 years.
On an organizational level, the Women’s Coop exemplifies the ways in which “the inferiority and superiority of oppressed and oppressor may well continue in an ‘inclusive’ planning process” (Mirafltab, 2009, p. 45). Entrenched in the neoliberal political and social environment of Sri Lanka, organization members expect little from the government in terms of access to basic needs and instead rely on their own savings and the resources provided by the group. One member of the Women’s Coop writes, “We can overcome the difficulties of our daily life with this group. I personally have settled my old debts from the local moneylender which were on high rates of interest. Now we have a place to get loans at one percent interest. This group system is very useful for the poor people. I can now see the value of unity among the group members because of this group system” (http://www.caledonia.org.uk/srilanka.htm).
Although appearing to acquiesce to hegemonic power, members of the Women’s Coop counter patriarchal control, “maintained by excluding women from access to essential resources,” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 262) by moving toward long-term financial independence and equality. Feminist theories of development “argue that short-term ameliorative approaches to improving are ineffective unless they are combined with long term strategies to re-establish people’s (and especially women’s) control over economic decisions shaping their lives” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 264). Collective groups such as the Women’s Coop “operate either in an affirmative register—leaving undisturbed the underlying structural frameworks that generate inequitable outcomes—or in a transformative one— correcting inequitable outcomes precisely by restructuring the underlying generative framework” (Rankin, 2010, p. 226). To exemplify the diversity of resistance methods, Rankin describes a group of feminist activists in India called the Sangtin Writers who have confronted “patriarchy, capitalism, castism” with a variety of methods, “in some cases resisting them, in some cases reproducing them, in some cases strategically inhabiting them” (Rankin, 2010, p. 226). Subordinate in much the same way as the Sangtin Writers, the Women’s Coop may appear non-subversive and affirmative, but as Rankin points out, “outward public accommodation can mask subversion in the context of everyday urban life” (Rankin, 2010, p. 224).