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Ms. Savitri Singh rejoins her parent organisation, the National Cooperative Union of India (NCUI) on 1st April 2021.  Ms. Savitri joined ICA-AP on deputation in 2002 and has worked with us continually for 18 years! During this time, she worked in the areas of gender, communication, and policy. She helped develop the Women Committee and initiated sex-disaggregated data collection, produced Resource Guide for training on Entrepreneurship and Gender Equality, coordinated and organised AP Cooperative Ministers’ Conferences, managed the Cooperative Forum during the Regional Assemblies, commissioned Critical Study of Coop Law and Policy in the region, represented the region at various international platforms worked on the #coops4dev project, and coordinated one of the ICA-MAFF, Government of Japan training course.  


We took the opportunity to speak with her on her experience at ICA-AP and her views on having a gender balance in cooperatives.


When did you start your journey with ICA-AP?


I joined ICA-AP as an Adviser to the Gender Program - Women Empowerment and Gender Mainstreaming in Cooperatives in the AP region. I was deputed by the National Cooperative Union of India (NCUI). Subsequently, I took charge of ICA-AP Communications as well. In 2016, I became the Program Director. My journey had been interesting, challenging and fulfilling as I have worked diligently to enhance women’s participation in cooperatives, strengthen communication with members and stakeholders, network through various advocacy media, develop enabling environment for the growth of cooperatives, and build the capacity of members.


Since I had a rich experience of working with the NCUI and the Tribal Co-operative Marketing Federation of India (TRIFED) on various streams, it did not take much time for me to get familiarized with the working environment of ICAAP.


Tell us about some of the assignments that you enjoyed working on.


Over these many years, I have worked on a range of projects on Gender, HIV AIDS, Cooperative Ministers’ Conference, AP Cooperative Registrars’ Conference, ICA-EU Partnership on People-Centered Businesses (#coops4dev), policy advocacy, and some administrative work as well. I feel good about having initiated the sex-disaggregated data collection in cooperatives.


The very first assignment that I undertook was restructuring the gender division of the ICA-AP office. In collaboration with International Labor Organisation (ILO), we published a need-based participative training manual for women in cooperatives in the Asia and Pacific region. It was adopted and translated by six member organisations in their local languages. Based on the manual, we initiated capacity building programs for women cooperators. These programs started at a regional level and we covered most of the member countries through seven training programs and gradually shifted to the national level. Later, we initiated a networking program for women cooperators who showed interest in the cooperative business. I was able to spread ICA-AP projects beyond certain countries and reached out to countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Fiji, Laos, Iran, Mongolia, and Myanmar. I also coordinated the TAGAYTAY+10 and TAGATAY+20 Regional Conferences on the Status of Women in 2006 and 2016, respectively.


I presented the situation of cooperatives in the Asia and Pacific region on HIV AIDS in a seminar organised by the ICA Global office in Washington D.C. in 2004.  Post that, we further developed the project with support and funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and organised the first workshop in 2006 on ‘Creating Awareness for HIV AIDS’ for the cooperative members in India. Later, we collaborated with National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India; Department for International Development (DFID); United Nations Development Program (UNDP); a local NGO, Resource Centre for Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS (RCSHA); NCUI; and National Council for Cooperative Training (NCCT). We covered 12 Indian states with three programs targeting leaders, managers, stakeholders, and primary cooperative members in each state. The substantial achievement of this project was that the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives supported initiatives to integrate HIV AIDS training within the training curriculum of the cooperatives. NCCT also included HIV AIDS awareness in their existing training curriculum for cooperatives. Later, the program was expanded to other countries as well.


Collecting Sex-Disaggregated Data in cooperatives was one of the innovative projects that I initiated in 2005. While working on gender-related projects, I realised that there were hardly any women in the mainstream, and I became curious to know how many women are a part of the cooperatives. I proposed this idea to the then Regional Director, it was approved, and was supported by ICA Domus trust. I actively participated in each activity from designing the proforma to sending it out and following up with all member organisations. It was a humongous task as members had not maintained women-specific data and it took a lot of time for us to convince and guide them to get the relevant data. The report was published in 2006 and for the first time, we got to know that women participation in the cooperative movement of Asia and Pacific was around 30% and women leadership around 10%.


I was the In-charge of ICA-AP Communications from 2010 to 2016. During which, I was the editor of ICA-AP newsletters and published the annual activities reports.


I was the coordinator to organise the Regional Cooperative Ministers’ Conference in 2012 and commissioned a Critical Study on Cooperative Law and Policy in the member countries to be presented at the 9th conference. While doing this, I realised that Cooperative Registrars are the key people whom we should address, so, we organised the first Regional Cooperative Registrar’s Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2013.


In 2013, I started representing the Asia and Pacific region in the Policy for Development (PFD) Forums to prepare for the funding proposal to European Commission. I was the Asia and Pacific representative in the proposal development team along with three regional Directors from the Americas, Europe, and Africa regions. The #coops4dev project was sanctioned in 2016, and I was assigned the policy segment of this project, where I mobilised members and facilitated their discussions with European Union Delegations (EUDs). We established good relations with EUDs in member countries and especially in India, Kyrgyzstan, Palestine, the Philippines and Nepal.


In 2014, we started a National Conference for Cooperatives Development to advocate for policies and enabling environment for cooperatives in the countries where the cooperative movement needed to be developed and strengthened and held conferences in Laos, Kyrgyzstan, and Vanuatu. We also initiated consultation with Regional organisations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).


Very recently, I focused on the SDG 13: Climate Action and we organised a Capacity Building Program on the theme “Save the Environment to Sustain Future Generations” in 2019. The encouraging achievement of this program was that the Asian Confederation of Credit Unions (ACCU) made a policy change. Adding the 6th C of Credit – Climate Compliance in loan assessments for their members was a foresighted decision by ACCU. ACCU in collaboration with NATCCO, Philippines has also started a training program to train the young cooperators on climate action. The graduates are known as “Climate Warriors”.


In your opinion, how has the environment for cooperatives changed in Asia and Pacific over the last two decades?


I think not many substantial changes have taken place in terms of laws and policy environment for cooperatives and their relationship with governments. But we have started seeing more women representation across all levels and at national and international fora. ICA Global also has had two women presidents in the recent past and a few of our member organisations have women CEOs.


Our work towards the inclusion of youth has also paid off and now I see many young people joining our programs, there is a lot of interest in platform cooperatives among the youth.


Why is gender balance and having a more diverse workforce in cooperatives important, especially in senior management/ leadership?


I believe that having a diverse workforce is important and I say this based on my experience as a working woman. In NCUI, I used to head the International Relations Division, Women Empowerment Division, and Women Cooperative Education Project Division. I have travelled the length and breadth of the country and saw that women are a rare sight in leadership or decision making positions. Women’s involvement and contribution in cooperatives are tremendous, but not recognised. Most of the food production work is undertaken by women but they are not part of cooperatives, as a result, women are deprived of the benefits like credit, skill development, etc. These experiences have firmed up my belief that gender balance is crucial for taking cooperative institution forward. I also advocate for youth involvement in cooperatives, as, if we say women that means women of all ages. Women should not be part of only the senior management but across all levels.


Presently, most women are only at the primary level, they are excluded from the mainstream, their capabilities are not fully utilised, and they are mostly denied opportunities. Women are equally capable and if they are excluded, it means the cooperative institutions are deprived of a different set of skills and ideas. It is a universal phenomenon that women are scarcely present in leadership positions. If women can contribute at the bottom level, why can they not get the opportunity to climb the ladder and be at the top? That is why gender balance is very important and it will automatically bring diversity in decision making and work culture, especially at the management and leadership levels.


Would you like to share with us your plans about how you would take the cooperative movement forward?


I think we should start quantifying the contribution of cooperatives to the nations GDP and motivate our member cooperatives in the Asia and Pacific region to conduct this study. This study is very important for cooperatives to show their work and approach the governments for their due recognition. Cooperatives work a lot but what they lack in consolidating their work, documenting it for the government and stakeholders and left out as active contributors to the economy. This is one of my plans.


I would also like to keep our advocacy and lobbying in momentum to keep the interest of all stakeholders intact.


We wish Ms. Savitri the very best in the next chapter of her professional career!