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"Women’s vote came first in many co-ops"

8 March 2012

Co-operative businesses gave women equal voting rights almost a century before most parliaments of the world did. "On this International Women's Day in 2012 which is also the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives, I am asking co-operative businesses to follow that example and put more women at the core of their businesses", said Dame Pauline Green, the first female president in the history of the world's largest NGO, the International Co-operative Alliance.

Dame Pauline, who leads the largest global business sector by number of shareholders and employees, acknowledged the millions of women who have helped make a democratic, people-led business model the most popular in the world today. But she also recognized the lack of official recognition of the participation of women in rural co-operatives in developing nations.

Dame Pauline paid tribute to Doriméne Desjardins who co-founded the largest cooperative financial group in Canada, and the sixth largest financial institution in Canada. When she died in 1932 a local paper wrote that without Doriméne Desjardins, "Desjardins caisses (local co-ops) would have probably not existed". She had no job title and no salary but the impact of her contribution was as significant as her husband Alphonse Desjardins. "It is certainly not by sheer luck that Desjardins Group is today the largest Canadian private organization led by a woman, Monique F. Leroux" she said.

Dame Pauline highlighted the global leadership role Desjardins’ CEO Monique Leroux had played in implementing governance practices characterized by a broader role for local coops and members. At the same time Desjardins Group reported record surplus earnings and member dividends. Desjardins has been recognised as one of Canada’s Top 100 employers in 2012 as well as being ranked 18th in Global Finance’s World’s 50 Safest Banks. Co-operative businesses are founded on the principle of one member one vote.

Early examples in Rochdale, England (considered the birthplace of the modern co-operative model) awarded women equal membership rights to men, at a time when women were still excluded from owning property. This was 88 years before British women got the full vote. In Quebec, Canada, the Desjardins caisses were often managed de facto by women, especially in rural areas. Married women until 1964 were denied the right to sign any legal document without their husband’s consent.

Dame Pauline said there were multitudes of women working in co-operatives who were largely unrecognized outside their communities. Co-operatives like The Argan Tree, Cocoki, and the co-operatives which form part of the SEWA network in India were all examples of women managing profitable co-operative businesses. These case studies are highlighted on the global website for the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives 2012 (www.2012.coop) and the global campaign of co-operative stories (www.stories.coop).

CO-OPERATIVE FACTS What is a co-operative? A co-operative is a member-owned business which gives as much attention to its community, social and environmental obligations as to its profits. Co-operative businesses are the largest business sector by shareholding and employment worldwide. There are 1 billion co-operative members globally compared to 328 million shareholders of stock market listed companies.

Co-operatives employ 100 million people - 20% more than all multinational corporations. The Top 300 co-operatives alone generate USD 1.6 trillion turnover equivalent to 9th largest global economy (Spain) "Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility," Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General. The International Co-operative Alliance is the world’s largest NGO. The world’s best football club FC Barcelona, the global news provider Associated Press, the diversified dairy group Dairy Farmers and the world’s largest agricultural bank, Rabobank are all co-operatives.

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