THE saying ‘empower a woman to empower a nation’ is the first thing that comes to mind when one visits Rwiyemezamirimo Dufatanye Cooperative. You get to see the real picture of the fruits of empowering a woman or rather in this case, of women empowering themselves.
The cooperative which is made up of former sex workers, widows, as well as women who were involved in vending vegetables around Kigali has grown from a handful of 20 to over 95 members.
Cecile Mujawayezu, the president of Rwiyemezamirimo Dufatanye Cooperative, which can be literary translated as ‘determined to work together’ says the cooperative started in 2010 with only 20 members.
“Our cooperative is growing gradually and we are happy that more women are joining. We find solace in empowering other women to grow emotionally, economically and as well as living as one big family that cares for one another,” Mujawayezu expresses.
Mujawayezu says many women who joined the cooperative had lost hope for a brighter future but now all that has changed.
“Besides giving our lives to Christ, our livelihood has changed. I remember the traumatising times as sex workers when one of us would lose a child or when one of the sex workers died. No one seemed to care because we were disrespected in society to the extent that we would not have anywhere to bury until maybe the district official intervened. Those were the worst times,” she recalls.
Mujawayezu also says that reformed sex workers should not be stigmatised by society.
“I would wish to tell Rwandans that a reformed sex worker makes a great wife and people should stop stigmatising them. Soon, one of our members is going to get married, I promise to invite the press to cover the event, “Mujawayezu reveals heartily.
According to Mujawayezu, women who turn to such ways don’t do it because they enjoy it but because circumstances push them to.
“Women become sex workers not because they enjoy doing it; it’s because of several circumstances that they encounter in life. For example most of the former sex workers were widows who would not take care of themselves or their families. I can’t say we don’t have challenges anymore, we do, but we face them together as a cooperative. For example we still have a challenge of land as currently our green houses are on rented land whose rent is hiked each passing day but we work hard to get money for rent.”
The cooperative has a green house where they cultivate tomatoes as well as a market that is commonly known as ‘Sodoma’ in Gikondo Sector, Kicukiro District.
The cooperative collects Rwf 500per day from each member which is saved on the cooperative’s account and at the end of the month each member gets at least Rwf 20,000 to boost their business.
Aisha Mukamana, a member of the cooperative who formerly used to sell vegetables in a basket commonly known as agakatebo, is grateful for the benefits she is attaining from the group efforts.
“My eldest daughter is now in senior two thanks to the cooperative. Before joining the cooperative, I didn’t have any saving culture but now I do. Now I have a business and it’s more secure than before. I used to run around hiding from the police because it was not allowed to sell vegetables in the basket,” Mukamana reminisces.
The 38-year-old Mukamana urges women to take up the initiatives of forming groups and to join the cooperative because of the vast benefits.
“We use the savings from the cooperative to empower each other such as increasing a member’s capital as well as improving our livelihood and that of our family members,” Mukamana discloses.
According to a FAO’s (Food and Agriculture Organisation) report on agricultural co-operatives published in 2011, rural cooperatives play an indispensable role in the eradication of hunger and poverty. One of the ways they achieve this is through their vocation to empower small agricultural producers, and in particular women farmers.
“Organising is the key to empowerment. Organising is the process by which people who are individually weak and vulnerable unite and create power together. When individuals who are among the poorest, least educated and most disenfranchised members of society come together, they experience dramatic changes in their lives,” the report says.
The report explains that through the power of association, cooperatives demonstrate their capacity to help small scale producers overcome barriers to gain better access to resources and inputs, and thus play a greater role in meeting the growing global food demand.
The reports mean to say that for women who have been at a disadvantage, cooperatives offer networks of mutual support and solidarity that allow them to grow their social capital, improve their self-esteem and self-reliance, acquire a greater voice in decision-making, and collectively negotiate better contract terms, prices and access to a wide range of resources and services.
Honourable Oda Gasizigwa, the Minister of Gender and family Promotion is encouraged to see women coming up and owning such initiatives.
“It is very encouraging to see and hear of women taking up such initiatives to free themselves from whatever situations they might be in. They are not sitting, waiting for the government to help them out. The fact that they come together to face a common challenge has shown that they want to own whatever projects and initiatives they are up to.”
The minister adds that by regrouping and having a cooperative, the women can easily attract help from stakeholders who may be willing to chip in at various levels. “It is easy to work with such initiatives because they are already structured and have a project already running. It is easy for them to work with other ministries and organisations because they have voluntarily grouped and taken the initiative themselves. They came up with a very good project where there are plenty of opportunities and assured market.”
On her part the minister pledges to keep supporting such initiatives and cooperatives as they are a sure way to social and economic empowerment. “We will keep working with them and others as cooperatives have proven to have a massive impact towards social and economic empowerment. There are plenty of opportunities to be taken up and there are already success stories to show possibility.
What are the challenges this coop is facing
Currently one of the challenges that keep these women up at night is rent for the space where the green house is located.
“Though we own the green house, it is on rented space and that is an operating cost we have to incur often. We also are held back by low capital because we can only reap what we put in. Our capital inhibits us as it determines our profits. With a little more capital we would grow and take on more opportunities,” Mujawayezu says.
Mujawayezu also adds that in future they seek to get past this and own their own land which will enable them to cut operating costs, leaving them with more capital.