Starting a New Cooperative
Organizing a women's cooperative in a new location in India is not as simple as placing a want ad and waiting for people to show up. The process can take a year or even more as MarketPlace-SHARE representatives determine an area in need, focus on a group of women, work to convince the women that they can overcome all the obstacles, and go through the official steps of registering the cooperative.
After working for over 25 years in Santa Cruz (E), a suburb of Mumbai, MarketPlace decided to expand to areas north of Mumbai where job opportunities are scarce especially for women.
The first step is finding an area in which the need for income is great but opportunities scarce. While there is no shortage of poor communities, government census and income information can help identify the most desperate situations. Social workers then travel to the towns, villages, and neighborhoods to get to know the communities first hand and to spread the word about what cooperatives have to offer.
On the way to Ranphol Mahila Mandal, the first cooperative started by MarketPlace-Share. Most of the women in this cooperative were flower-pickers working in the heat of the sun for very little pay.
As outsiders coming in to a small, traditional community, the MarketPlace representatives must deal with distrust and hostility. Just gaining access to women is a challenge. They often start out by knocking on doors. Sometimes the women listen to them. Sometimes they close the door in their faces. And sometimes the social workers are met by hostile husbands who do not want their women to work outside of the home. Often the men do not even want women to leave the house alone or speak with their neighbors - let alone strangers! As an alternative, the social workers find out about places where women congregate outside of the home, such as infant nutrition centers or children's schools. The representatives talk to women wherever they can, handing out leaflets and urging whoever is interested to come to a group meeting. Many times these meetings are set up only to have few women show up.
Bringing the women together for a meeting is a challenge, as their husbands do not allow them to go out.
It takes a long time and a lot of discussions because the local women have many questions and many obstacles. Just earning the women's trust is difficult, because they find it hard to believe that an organization can exist solely for their benefit. Traveling outside their homes is traditionally forbidden and simply something they have not experienced. They have children and household responsibilities. The idea of dealing with bankers and lawyers to register their cooperative is very intimidating. They have typically only handled limited household money and are nervous at the idea of being responsible for other funds. They have never had to do anything like keeping books, calculating wages, or many of the other tasks that come with running their own business.
Most of the women have to take a bus or rickshaw to the train station and then a train to get to the MarketPlace office in Santa Cruz Mumbai; a journey of about 90 minutes. All of them have never traveled anywhere alone.
MarketPlace representatives try to resolve many of these problems. They tell the women that much of the work can be done at home, that MarketPlace reimburses travel fees for training and meetings, that social workers can accompany them to the banks and law offices and that they will be taught how to handle the business details. Visits to existing cooperatives encourage them. Women often ask why they have to organize a cooperative instead of just working on their own. The representatives explain how the cooperative will provide security, support, income - and will belong only to them. And, within an incredibly short time, these women will be comfortable traveling on trains and buses, filling out forms, and using computers!
Numerous meetings are held at every stage. Even after the formalities of starting a cooperative are completed there are regular meetings as the women have to manage work flow, production planning, quality, etc.
The challenge of defying cultural norms and daring to do new things is not for everyone. But when MarketPlace finds a group of women ready to take it on to build something better for themselves, their families and their futures, the staff and social workers will work with them to overcome any and all obstacles.