ILO contributes to an International Cooperative Week event on women cooperative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

On November 19, 2021, SEWA Cooperative Federation, WIEGO and International Cooperative Alliance - Asia-and-Pacific (ICA-AP) organized a global webinar titled ‘Rebuilding an Inclusive World in the Wake of the Pandemic: Women Cooperatives Lead the Way’ on the occasion of the International Cooperative Week.

Actualité | 26 novembre 2021
Conducted over two hours on November 19th, over 120 people from over 28 countries registered to the webinar that was translated into eight languages to allow for greater engagement from grassroots actors. The webinar was split into three back-to-back panels benefiting from presentations of researchers, practitioners and resource people.

In the first panel, that was facilitated by ILO COOP Programme Manager Simel Esim, Janhavi Dave from Homenet South Asia and Palak Gadhiya from SEWA Cooperative Federation shared evidence emerging from two stages of studies that they have conducted in 2020 and 2021 on the effect of the COVID19 pandemic on informal women workers and the role that cooperatives, collectives and other social and solidarity economy units played in responding to their needs. The third panelist Simren Singh from ICA-AP shared highlights from an ICA Asia Pacific regional webinar where women leaders from cooperative organizations in the Asia Pacific region highlighted some of the adaptations and innovations undertaken in response to the challenges faced by members in general and women members in particular.

The webinar presented the opportunity for the SEWA Cooperative Federation to launch their report titled ‘Building Resilience & Strengthening our Solidarity: A Study of Women’s Collective Enterprises during COVID-19’ which illustrates findings on the impact of collective social enterprise membership on informal women during the second COVID wave in India. This 2021 study builds on an earlier study from 2020 on the impact of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic on women informal economy workers. Similarly the HomeNet South Asia study from 2020 highlighted how the unfolding situation around COVID19 affected home-based workers in South Asia. While the preliminary results of the HomeNet South Asia study from 2021 were shared during the webinar, it was noted that the full study would be made available in December 2021.

The second panel of the webinar covered presentations by SSE organization leaders from Nigeria, Nepal, the Dominican Republic and India. In this panel, chaired by Mittal Shah, the Managing Director of SEWA Cooperative Federation, the panelists shared their experiences in addressing the socio-economic and health impacts of the pandemic for their members. They also elaborated on steps that could be taken to hasten recovery.

The third and final panel of the webinar consolidated the learnings of the two previous panels into a more tangible roadmap for policy advocacy efforts in the coming year. The panel, chaired by Yamini Atmavilas Senior Programme Officer in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in India, included Simel Esim from the ILO, Balasubramanian Iyer from ICA-AP and Mirai Chatterjee from SEWA Cooperative Federation as panelists.

One of the key takeaways from this panel was the need for women’s informal economy organizations to set an agenda for upcoming national and international conferences, including the ICA’s 33rd World Cooperative Congress (WCC), the ILO’s 2022 International Labour Conference (ILC), where a general discussion will take place on the SSE. In preparation for these conferences, there is a need to synthesize the findings from the research of organizations like HomeNet South Asia and SEWA Cooperative Federation that provide rich evidence on the role of cooperatives and the wider SSE in responding to crises. A joint synthesis publication would be one way. Leading up to the ILC, this could take the form of a paper expressing shared experiences of membership-based organizations of informal economy around the SSE.

The panelists underlined that cooperatives and wider SSE organizations have demonstrated their ability to innovate due to their value-based approach and centrality of principles in their work. To improve their resilience, such organizations need to connect across sectors to strengthen each other and local supply chains, they noted. Cooperative organizations can assist with this, but also have immense potential to advocate for better social protection, more capacity-building and targeted policy action, factors especially relevant to women workers in the informal economy, they concluded.

As they are capable of meeting basic needs of their members in an inclusive manner, women’s cooperatives can play a greater role in crises response. However, given the lack of a supportive environment, they account for barely 3 percent of cooperatives in India and require support to become sustainable. This is especially relevant in the face of increasing digitisation and a rapidly changing policy landscape, which requires a significant investment through incubation funds, working capital support and tax holidays among others.

The webinar provided an opportunity for practitioners and thought-leaders from the social and solidarity economy to come together, to engage with the research findings and practical experiences and to brainstorm solutions to the challenges faced by women in the informal economy during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For a policy note by SEWA Cooperative Federation on “Rebuilding an Inclusive World in the Wake of the Pandemic: Women’s Cooperatives Lead the Way” , see here.

For a report of the webinar by SEWA Cooperative Federation, see here.