Women’s cooperative enables children’s education

In the village of Arani, 70 percent of the residents can knit. There used to be a cooperative here, run by a priest. Now a number of women are building up a new cooperative that applies a more sustainable cooperative model, with a focus on rights and women’s independence from men.

I sit in the car, along with coordinators Fabiola Villarroel, Carolina Prudencio and Emma Fuentes from Decopso. We are on our way to the rural villages outside the large city of Cochabamba. As we pass the high valley that is famed for its delicious peaches, we stop off at a roadside peach stand.

I think the landscape we have travelled through has looked quite green and fertile, but the woman selling the fruit says there has been far too little rain recently. According to her, the roads are dusty and the water level in the lake we drove past is much too low. Here, almost everyone earns a living from growing and selling peaches, and we each buy a big bag.

Then we continue to the low valley, known for its corn beer and fantastic bread. In the village of Arani we are going to meet a women’s cooperative that produces knitwear: everything from hats and leg warmers to jumpers and cardigans. We are invited into a small room that looks more like a hallway, but chairs line the walls and after we have greeted everyone in the room, we sit down for a chat.

Work with a long tradition and history

Women of various ages are sitting with us, some of them wearing traditional clothing. We are offered chicha, the typical local corn beer, hot milk and two different kinds of bread. We break chunks off the large round loaves and the cup of chicha makes its way around the group. One of the women explains that the area we are in is known for its knitting. 70 percent of all women and men living here know how to knit.

Three women in traditional clothings.

Decopso works to support the development of social cooperatives. This cooperative was formed only five months ago, by women from the village who had previously been part of a cooperative in Cochabamba. Via Decopso, the cooperative is affiliated with Cotexbo, a fair trade textile company. Through them, the cooperative is now in contact with purchasers in Japan. In a few months time, they will be delivering their first major consignment of 400 jumpers and cardigans made from alpaca wool.

An increasing willingness to talk about the situation for people with disabilities

Most of those who work in the cooperative either have a disability themselves or have a child with a disability.

– Here in the countryside there is a great deal of prejudice and many people still hide away their disabled children. This is partly because they’re afraid for their children, but also because they’re embarrassed, says Fabiola from Decopso.

Carolina and Fabiola often travel out to the cooperatives to see how they are doing and to support those who work in the cooperatives. This is a cooperative purely for women, and they explain that it has taken a long time to gain the women’s trust. However, they have started noticing a gradual change recently. More and more of them are bringing their children to the cooperative and they are talking about the situation for people with disabilities to a greater extent.

– We work hard on changing the women’s attitudes. In a few days, we have a meeting that brings together representatives from all the cooperatives to assess the work, and one of the key items on the agenda will be how we can push to change attitudes, says Fabiola.

Mothers’ income enables children to get an education

Damiana Flores has been knitting since she was 12 years old. She went to school in the mornings and knitted in the afternoons to help her parents provide for the family. But they were extremely poor and Damiana soon had to give up school.

Damiana Flores .– When my own children started school, I discovered that I didn’t know enough to help them with their homework. So I started studying again. I graduated when I was 35 years old, she says proudly.

In 2005, Damiana also had the opportunity to attend a course in leadership development at the university in Cochabamba. She went to the university two days a week for five years. As she is telling her story another, younger woman comes into the room and introduces herself. This is Clivia Aguilar, one of Damiana’s daughters.

– I’ve been able to train as a teacher, thanks to my mum’s knitting, she says. In this village, many people have earned a living from knitting and this has allowed us younger ones to get an education.

A sustainable cooperative model is important

There was another form of cooperative activity here in the village at one time, run by a priest and a nun. When they died, the whole operation disappeared. Now, with the help of Decopso, the women are learning how to build up their new cooperative and how to organise themselves based on a more sustainable cooperative model.

– We’re learning about our rights and about working together. This way, there are many of us who know how the cooperative works, and it also makes us more independent from the men. Before, our rights only existed on paper. Here we give each other the courage to assert our rights properly, says Clivia Aguilar.

Those who are able to read and write, for example, teach those who can’t. To begin with, those who could read did so for those who couldn’t, but then they realised it was much better to teach those who couldn’t instead of doing it for them.

– As soon as people started learning to read and write, we discovered they had all sorts of knowledge that hadn’t come out before, relates Clivia. Many of those with disabilities lack confidence about their own capabilities. We work together to raise our self-esteem, so we have the courage to meet decision-makers and tell them about our situation and our needs, for example.

The oldest woman in the room, who is called Cayetana, has just started learning to read and write. I ask her how it feels. She looks around shyly.

– Good, she replies. I want to learn more and I will learn more.

Lina Jakobsson