Building Cooperatives to Empower Women

Women in Gaojiagou village participate in a data gathering activity by Gender Development Solution, a nongovernment organization.

2 July 2012 -- Shanxi, a historic center of trade and banking, was once the richest province in People's Republic of China.

But times have changed. Due to heavy coal mining and unsustainable agricultural practices, Shanxi's rich natural resources are fast deteriorating. The agriculture sector remains the region's largest employer, though despite 30 years of reform, people in almost half of its counties are still living in poverty.

Women are affected most

More than 35 percent of men in the province migrate to find jobs. Women who are left behind become heads of farm households, gaining a more prominent role in production. Yet, their role remains marginal while their social and economic rights are usually ignored.

ADB, with the help of Gender Development Solution (GDS), is helping to improve the status of Shanxi's women and their families' wellbeing while protecting the region's natural resources. GDS is a nongovernment organizationbased in Xi'an, Shaanxi, a neighboring province.

GDS begun setting up village-based banking in the form of microfinance cooperatives to provide women head of families' access to credit. The cooperatives, which are themselves composed of and headed by women, are women-friendly in a number of non-traditional ways.

Residents of Majiashan village are on their way to participate in addressing Shanxi's deteriorating environment.

The cooperatives have organized women in productive groups. Once operational, these will provide access to microfinance through group guarantees without requiring collateral. They will also allow women to sign credit agreements without a male cosignatory, which is currently not commonly practiced in the country.

Through the much needed microfinance support, women will have access to planting materials and technology to plant high-value crops such as fruits, nuts, and selected Chinese herbs.

The project also promotes the adoption of environmentally sustainable farming and animal rearing systems like pen-feeding to support fragile soils.

Training activities

GDS have trained women on the importance of fund management, crop marketing, and also new technologies for integrated agricultural systems. Government agencies have also been involved to provide the necessary technical and institutional support to sustain improvements.

Initially introduced in four villages in Daning and Liulin counties, GDS has carried out community baseline survey to help identify the most appropriate approaches for the target beneficiaries. Gender and development concepts are salient features of the training activities.

"The training results showed most participants improved their understanding on gender concepts. Now they can differentiate sex from gender. They have also learned gender analysis methods and understood gender equality from traditional ideas," said GDS Microfinance Expert Chen Kegang.

To date, a total of four management committees have been formed covering all the target villages under a women's cooperative called the Women Economic Development Association (WEDA). It is expected that WEDA will provide vital agricultural support to the women in Shanxi to increase incomes while reducing pressure on the environment. Some 66,000 farm households in 26 counties will benefit from this project.

"Supporting rural women to realize higher incomes contributes to improved social welfare. Moreover, greater economic power shifts gender dynamics, helping women exert their rights, voice their needs, and play a greater role in planning and decision-making, " said ADB Senior Social Development Specialist Markus Vorpahl.

The Women's Economic Pilot Project is a part of the Shanxi Integrated Agricultural Development Project, a loan financed by ADB amounting to $100 million. The pilot project was supported through a grant by the Water Financing Facility, and Gender and Development Cooperation Fund amounting to a total of $695,000.