More than 1 billion people worldwide are members of co-operatives, and on first glance, that staggering fact seems to have no geographic bounds. There are an astounding number of co-operative members from countries as far-ranging as Singapore (where they make up half of the country’s population) to Germany (that counts a quarter of its population as co-operative members). Co-operatives, too, make a huge economic impact across a wide swathe of nations: they are responsible for nearly half of Kenya’s GDP, almost ten percent of Vietnam’s, and as much as five percent of Colombia’s.

But one region where co-operatives are sorely lacking in number and strength is in the Arab States. In the occupied Palestinian territory, Lebanon and Iraq, co-operatives play a minimal role, providing employment to no more than 1 percent of the employed population. Additionally, not all co-operatives are as they appear; many institutions identify themselves as co-operatives to take advantage of legal benefits or donor funds, even though they lack the basic co-operative tenets.

Participation by women in co-operatives across the occupied Palestinian territory, Lebanon, and Iraq is especially limited, confined mostly to women-only co-operatives that tend to be far smaller in size than their men-only counterparts. Women in mixed co-operatives, meanwhile, usually don’t take on any leadership or decision-making roles, and often do not benefit to the same extent as male members.

Employment rates are also low for women across these countries, with women holding less than a quarter of total jobs. Yet in times of conflict, family structures often change, with a growing surge in women-headed households, especially in rural areas, as men migrate to urban areas to look for employment or are engaged in the conflict. In Lebanon after the civil war, 14.4 percent of households were women-headed, and 10.2 percent were women-headed in occupied Iraq.

In these moments of conflict that co-operatives may be at their most beneficial. Co-operatives allow members to share risks, pool resources, accumulate savings and provide credit—aspects that have special resonance to rural women in Arab states who have low levels of land ownership, which restrict their ability to provide collateral to secure loans and engage in other income-generating opportunities. (In 1998, fewer than 7 percent of landholders in Lebanon were women, while in 1999 in the WBGS, only 5 percent of women owned land.)

By aggregating the power of rural women in Arab states who independently might only have been able to achieve very little, co-operatives may provide a useful tool for their empowerment and economic independence, and provide a path towards long-term sustainable socioeconomic recovery after conflict. There are examples of such collective power emerging. The Union of Cooperative Associations for Saving and Credit (UCASC) is a union of cooperatives in the occupied Palestinian territory, where women members consist the majority of all members among cooperatives. The vision of the union is to build a better future for Palestinian women living in rural areas based on cooperative principles. UCACS membership has been growing many-fold in the past few years.
This story was made possible through research carried out by Simel Esim and Mansour Omeira published as “Rural women producers and cooperatives.” It was also made possible by policy papers published by the International Labour Organization Regional Office for Arab States. For more information, see and