Women in Benin stand out in their beautifully designed, brightly coloured fabrics, but their clothing is one of the few areas of their lives in which they have freedom of choice. In this tropical sliver of West Africa, women are traditionally subservient to men.

In 1993 the Benin country director for the Boston-based NGO (non-governmental organisation) World Education – itself founded by a remarkable woman, Welthy Honsinger Fisher – initiated a program together with USAID to assist women to organise co-operatives.

After seeing the success of mothers’ associations in neighbouring Burkina Faso, Al Miller of World Education organised a delegation to visit some of these co-operatives. The group included female government representatives, NGO representatives and one woman representing a parent-teacher association. This delegation found that in Burkina Faso mothers’ associations operated independently of the male-dominated parent-teacher associations. It was decided that this would not the best option in Benin, due to the risk of antagonism between women and men. However, Benin’s first mothers’ associations began with only women members.

This initiated a chain reaction. The women began to flourish in their new-found freedom and empowerment. The men, witnessing the energy of the women organised co-operatively, afforded them more respect. Women and men began to work collaboratively. Girls began to go to school.

“The women want their daughters to be educated,” says Shirley Burchfield, vice-president of World Education’s Africa division. “Any opportunity to improve their girls’ schooling, and they’’re willing to jump in there and do it.”

Now, nearly 20 years on, there are 630 mothers’ associations in Benin operating across 749 schools.

The true test of these mothers’ associations has been how they perform after their development funding has been discontinued. In Benin they have thrived, and now so do their daughters.

Story originally published in “Building a Better World: 100 stories of co-operation“, Focus Publications