By Mary Kate Costello and Ravi Karkara | March 6 2017
Youth – defined by the United Nations as those persons between the ages of 15 and 24 – total 1.8 billion of the global population. They are employable, eager and necessary for economic growth. Moreover, youth are entitled to their human rights. Yes, this includes desirable work, participation in government, an adequate living standard, and – try not to gasp – equality. However, nearly 90% live in developing countries: 62% in Asia and 17% in Africa. 
In the world’s 48 least developed countries, the majority of the population is under age 18 or adolescents aged 10 to 19. Most developing countries lack the needed capacity and infrastructure to accommodate the growing population socially, politically, and economically. Let not a position or lens of privilege alter understanding that [young] women are inarguably and especially affected, facing disproportionate challenges that stem from entrenched patriarchy and discriminatory laws.
In 2012, an estimated 31 million girls of primary school age and 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school. This is not simply a status quo statistic; this is proof of systemic sexism. Educational shortcomings yield insufficient employability and hinder economic participation for competitive and sustainable growth. To simplify: limitations to women’s economic empowerment and leadership skill development pervades poverty and hunger, and is arguably the main hindrance to achieving the United Nations 2030 Agenda.
When females* successfully gain access to labor force entry points, they not only improve income generation but also strengthen social welfare. America’s oldest and largest cooperatives association, NCBA-CLUSA, rightfully acknowledges this to be the “value of self-help, equality, and equity.”
A cooperative – possible for any sector, in all levels of society and by persons of any income level – is defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to be an autonomous association of people united voluntarily to meet economic, social and cultural needs through jointly owned and [democratically] controlled business. The Outcome Declaration from the 2016 International Summit of Cooperatives in Quebec City, Canada made clear its commitment to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. This reaffirms that cooperatives are the only private sector arena inherently aligned with the achievement of the United Nations 2030 Agenda – given cooperatives’ intersectionality of advancing an inalienable trifecta: economy, social and culture.
Co-operatives UK states that it is a reality that cooperatives have an 80% success rate in their first five years, versus other economic initiatives which reflect a 40% success rate in the same period.
It seems reasonable to posit that the core of economic stability for cooperatives are fair trade parameters: guaranteed prices from which a portion feeds back into social services. This protects goods pricing for geographically disadvantaged producers and ensures social service investments. In addition to economic independence per member, they can reap the benefits of collective investments in their health care, education, and – in some cases – shelter.
The sustainable practice of cooperatives is prided on environmental stewardship. For agricultural cooperatives, this may be realized via climate-smart agricultural practices, water conservation or safe management of waste. This links young women-led cooperatives to a “green” economy in which they apply their specific coping mechanisms and needs to their cooperative’s purpose.
In a global capitalist world where supply and demand are becoming more contentious in their availability and variety, young women-led cooperatives can fill gaps for rising food demands and cushion for resilience in the wake of natural disasters, conflict and any displacement. They also provide a sustainable solution to the common employability issue among both male and female youth today: the disinterest in agricultural occupations.
Cooperatives need not only form around agriculture. Today, the average age of a farmer is 60. Despite women making up 80% of smallholder farmers globally, young women are increasingly keen to pursue employment goals in “unconventional” trades such as carpentry, driving, real estate management, fashion design, textile production and child care.
The Hunger Project-Mexico works with the cooperative J’pas Joloviletik, comprised of 108 young Tzotzil women – indigenous Maya – in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. This cooperative has given young indigenous women the opportunity to generate income through the production of beautiful textiles, also more widely preserving a part of their culture that has been been passed on for generations.
The Hunger Project’s work with J’pas Joloviletik consists of trainings and workshops to strengthen members’ self-confidence and youth leadership skills, facilitate an empowerment process to make their voice stronger, and make visible the multiple roles that – as women – they play everyday socially in their family and community as well as economically as part of the cooperative.
This has successfully transformed resignation to the ostracization such indigenous people face, as they learn about their human and political rights and how to defend them via participation in decision-making spaces. This includes improved effectiveness in their cooperative: electing new council, organizing different commissions and increasing their accountability to one another as members.
Before working with The Hunger Project-Mexico eight years ago, there were 270 indigenous women without sustainable income. This is proof that women – especially young women – with proper training in operating a cooperative are at an exponential economic benefit for their families and community: opening bank accounts, paying taxes and selling textiles to other countries through the internet. Politically, economically and socially the women of J’pas Joloviletik are now key change agents inspiring other young indigenous women to see that they are capable of being successful and self-reliant business women.
At the grassroots level, where there are rural and often inaccessible communities, there still – yes, in 2017 – exists a grave need for the most basic of goods and services – to which all humans have a right. The advent of globalized technological communication has brought about [warranted] desire for a diversity of goods and services. Dressmakers in local communities are the fashion producers of their area, as well as businesswomen should they form a dressmaking cooperative. In Ghana, women have a right equal to that of men to own land. Rather than farm or raise livestock, a group of women who individually own land may operate a real estate cooperative wherein several market stalls are erected and leased to local shopkeepers. In some cases, their stalls may be leased to another cooperative’s shareholders to sell goods.
Women’s returns from investment are more likely to be spent on family and community improvements in addition to those already invested by the cooperative. This is especially crucial as improvements can mitigate young women’s time poverty from household care, childcare and even elder care. In addition to the multifaceted benefits of economic empowerment, young women-led cooperatives yield an exponential improvement in the social inclusion of marginalized young women (i.e. indigenous, disabled, LGBQT spectrum). The safe and inclusive space yields confidence-driven social and leadership skill development, opening additional doors for future entrepreneurial endeavors or other occupational ventures at higher levels in the formal economy.
Young women-led cooperatives improve social inclusion and make economically independent the poorest and most politically underserved gender. Young women-led cooperatives offer a long-term solution to preserve human rights and protect our environment. Young women-led cooperatives capitalize on unique coping and leadership skills to build resilience, mitigating post facto response costs in the wake of conflict or natural disaster. Young women-led cooperatives offer employment opportunities for both young males and females, benefitting all members with shared responsibility. Is there anything more sustainable than leaving no one behind? The 2030 Agenda will not be met otherwise.
 The Power of 1.8 Billion, Adolescents, Youth and the Transformation of the Future. UNFPA, 2014, http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/EN-SWOP14-Report_FINAL-web.pdfN
 The United Nations Program on Youth, United Nations, 2011, http://social.un.org
 The Power of 1.8 Billion, Adolescents, Youth and the Transformation of the Future. UNFPA, 2014, http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/EN-SWOP14-Report_FINAL-web.pdf
 Basic Education and Gender Equality. UNICEF, 23 July 2015, http://www.unicef.org/education/bege_70640.html
* In this article, “female” does not necessarily imply a reality of gender binary. The existence and due human rights for all persons – regardless of their association on the gender spectrum – applies. This article seeks to highlight the harshness of patriarchy and discusses only one of many solutions: young women’s leadership in cooperatives.
 Cooperative Values. Cultivate.coop, 24 February 2016, http://cultivate.coop/wiki/Cooperative_Values
 A Cooperative Future for People with Disabilities. International Labour Organization, December 2012, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/—ifp_skills/documents/publication/wcms_194822.pdf
 Cooperatives: The Power to Act on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. International Summit of Cooperatives, 2016, https://www.sommetinter.coop/sites/default/files/library/declaration_finale_eng_2016.pdf
 EGM on the Cooperative Sector and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. DSPD, 2016, https://www.un.org/development/desa/cooperatives/what-we-do/meetings-and-workshops/egm-coops-2030agenda.html
 The Co-operative Economy 2015. Co-operatives UK, 2015, http://www.uk.coop/sites/default/files/uploads/attachments/co-op_economy_2015.pdf
 Aims of Fairtrade Standards. Fairtrade International, 2011, https://www.fairtrade.net/standards/aims-of-fairtrade-standards.html#c3784
Mary Kate Costello is the Policy Analyst for The Hunger Project where she is responsible for spearheading the mainstream adoption of advocacy and policy priorities such as local-level, women-centric programming, the importance of partnerships with existing local governance structures, youth engagement and holistic development approaches. She places heavy focus on the importance of the cross-cutting sectors of nutrition, health, women’s empowerment, youth development and food security.
Ravi Karkara is Senior Advisor on Strategic Partnerships and Advocacy to the Assistant Secretary General to the UN and Deputy Executive Director, UN Women. With over two decades of experience, Ravi is an expert in various international development-related fields, driving innovation, building strategic partnerships, and promoting advocacy and programming in the areas of human rights, gender equality, accountability and social justice. He is also the Acting Head of Private Sector for UN Women.