Women, equal opportunities and rural development
Where women take the initiative
document type: article
keywords: women, equal opportunities
source: LEADER Magazine
last update: 5/96
In the vast province of Jämtland (North Central Sweden), women are often the driving force behind development initiatives. In this especially sparsely populated region (2.7 inhabitants/km2), some 300 groups, cooperatives, networks, etc. mainly run by women are active in all kinds of economic, social, and cultural activities bringing vitality and an outstanding quality of life to this rural, widely-dispersed part of Sweden.
"I think that history can partly explain our relative ease in rallying the women", says Margaretha Lindbäck-Hansson: "In Jämtland, there has always been a tradition of resistance dating back to the days of the pioneers, an egalitarian tradition (the feudal system never existed here) as well as a tradition of independent women, used to 'holding the fort' while the men went to work faraway in the forest."
Margaretha is in charge of a co-operative of 13 women, who, since 1995, have been engaged in restoring and running a 19th century farm. This old farmhouse has been renovated and today serves visitors meals or a cup of coffee, and can even offer accommodation (in its first year of business, 50 people stayed at the farmhouse). Nothing out of the ordinary, except that the hostesses, dressed like peasants from the last century, cook in the open hearth and that the farmhouse's very nature means that visitors who stop over have to live exactly like in the last century: spartan conditions of times past (no running water or electricity), helping with the animals, the option of travelling to the farmhouse by horse and cart, etc.
"We are taking on more members now to help share out the work", explains Margaretha. But won't that also mean sharing out the earnings among a lot of people? "Yes, but money is not our priority", she replies, "what matters, is the life that our project brings to the village. Our long-term goal is to set up similar attractions around Storsjön, the "Big Lake", the geographical and historical heart of Jämtland."
Almost everywhere, women have been the initiators behind such ventures. The scenario is often the same: Stage 1 - (at the end of the 1980s), the national campaign Hela Sverige ska leva ("All Sweden shall live") promoting the revitalisation of the countryside and where the involvement of women was strong. Stage 2 - informal women's "networks" formed in the villages (there are currently 50 in Jämtland) which lead to discussions, needs' analysis, identification of projects; Stage 3 - creating a legal entity, often by setting up a "co-operative" (in Sweden, requirements for co-operatives are simple: in general, the law only requires statutes and the involvement of at least three members).
This was the course followed by Agendum for example: "We started off very basically as a women's network in 1990", says Ann-Margreth Göransson, one of the project leaders and previously a local elected representative, who was disillusioned with "traditional" politics. "In a region that is rather conservative when it comes to male/female roles, the initial goal was to rally the women to organise social and cultural meetings and events with the objectives of increasing the visibility of their actions, defending women's interests, and increase female representation in decision-making, especially at local and regional level. Later, we took the route of new technology and set up a telematics network, which is now linked to other women's networks in Europe. Agendum, set up in 1995, serves as the legal entity for coordinating all these activities."
One concrete example of the cooperatives achievements is the purchase, with the assistance of the Swedish government and the municipality (*) of Berg, of 20 computers which make up two mobile "computer units", transported every 10 weeks to a different village, making it easier to introduce computers to people in their own area and catering for everything "from word-processing to the Internet". Since 1994, this service has given around 500 people (mainly women) and most of the villages in the municipality the opportunity to benefit from computer training.
Klövsjö (480 inhabitants) stakes a claim as the "most beautiful village in Sweden". The location can only be described as breathtaking: the lake forms a vast bay, traditional houses huddle around a small red and white church...
For several years now, the local population has been pursuing an ambitious initiative to revitalise the village and to improve the environment. This is a local women's initiative. It all began in 1986: the lack of childminding facilities for their children motivated five women to set up a crèche/nursery school. In 1988, they founded a co-operative and with the assistance of the municipality, they did up a large house enabling them to cater for 11 families. These women took it in turns to ensure that things ran smoothly and looked after the upkeep of the premises. 5 employees (1 full-time; 4 part-time) look after the daily running of the organisation. "There is something in this system for everyone", comments Lena Dahl, one of the founding members of the co-operative which now has 20 members: "something for the State and the municipality, since it saves them money, something for the parents since they have a good childminding service, something for the children who play in a particularly favourable setting..."
The success of the project really sparked off a collective spirit in the village: in February 1990, around the time of the "Jämtland Women's Week" - an event held every year -, the women of Klövsjö were trying to think of an action that they could undertake. "As usual, it all began with a threat" says one of the women, Ingalis Sjöberg-Bromée. "The lake is very important to the village and when it was discovered that it was being considerably polluted by water containing phosphates, we decided to do something about it and so, convinced the village women not to use detergents containing phosphates. The shop stopped selling these. Six months later, the level of phosphates in the lake had halved. This directly visible result encouraged everyone to keep up their efforts, so much so that their initiative attracted the attention of the national media. Now we are looking at how best to dispose of all waste water."
Environmentally-friendly toilets were installed in several public buildings in the village. Here, waste is turned into compost and used as fertiliser. A project was proposed in the framework of funds reserved under Objective 6 (assistance to regions in northern countries with low population density): 12 machines were purchased and made available free of charge to interested households. Research on the environmental impact of the action, as well as a study aimed at making all the equipment used collectively in the village "environmentally-friendly" were carried out. In the meantime, several women turned to the manufacture of organic beauty products. Klövsjö's small supermarket now sells these, along with many other "green" products, and village's environmental awareness has been matched elsewhere in Sweden: "as far away as Stockholm", says Lena Dahl, "where I was asked how we achieved what we did. To this, I answered - it all depends on your problem - ... Whatever it is that motivates you. For us it's the lake..."
Around fifty kilometres north of Östersund, the town centre of the province and the only big town in Jämtland, a little way off the road that leads to Lapland, there are three villages - Högarna, Fagarland and Ollsta - with a combined population of 130 inhabitants.
In the mid 1980s, this area's future looked pretty bleak: the gravel path was in a sorry state, the bus route, the shop and especially the school were threatened by closure. In 1985, the local people reacted by creating a discussion group which lead to an analysis of the situation and resulted in the definition of a strategy: "The general idea was a realisation of the need to improve services and to promote hospitality so as to attract new families to the villages", explains Britt-Inger Sundin, one of the leaders of the initiative. The group rolled up their sleeves and got to work on two new projects, creating an ice-skating rink and converting the old communal school into a multi-services centre. The work was entirely carried out by volunteers and funded by organising events and raffles. "Here, the women will give anything a go! They started the work, but the men got involved soon afterwards..." Britt-Inger hastens to add.
The group set up a "village co-operative" called Byssbon (which means 'The Villagers' in Swedish), on the basis of one vote per member. The co-operative has 50 members. Thanks to a loan guarantee made available by the municipality, the co-operative was able to borrow ECU 340 000 to build three one-family houses, in keeping with the area's traditional architectural style. An advertisement was published in the national press and three families were selected to move into the houses (renting with an option to purchase). At the same time, a communal oven for making bread and leisure facilities (here too, there was a lake nearby) added a friendly touch to the atmosphere. Repairs were carried out on the road and the public lighting was improved in 1992. The following year, Byssbon undertook its most ambitious project from a financial perspective: a care centre for the elderly was built (9 apartments), made possible through a loan of ECU 612 000 guaranteed by the municipality. "The idea of this was to enable the elderly to stay in the local area, while at the same time vacating their houses for newcomers," explains Leif Ahlin, one of the co-operative leaders. This strategy would appear to have worked, since in the last three years, 7 new families (and their 11 children) have moved into the area, justifying the opening of a crèche in 1995 and the recent reopening of a shop. "It turned out that it was the shop that caused us the most bother" says Leif: "it was closed down several times down through the years. But 27 February 1996 was a big day for us here: the shop opened its doors for the first time in two years, for good, I hope!". An interest-free loan from the local population enabled a member of the Byssbon co-operative to take over the shop.
According to Lennart Nilsson, the treasurer of the local co-operative, the total cost of doing up the villages will amount to around ECU 1.1 million, "not including the thousands of hours of voluntary work..." he hastens to add. Not only have the villages been revitalised, better still, they are tuned into the rest of the world since Byssbon has been active in the area of computers and telematics for many years now.
90 inhabitants (almost 70% of the total population!) have participated in a computer course. Around twelve of them have bought their own computers. 8 of these use computers at work. Byssbon was officially recognised as a telecentre within the Rural Telematics Network set up in Sweden, and 4 jobs have been created as a result. The co-operative is involved in teleworking by setting up and managing data bases for different private companies. It is also in charge of the data base for the "Council of Local Initiatives" which brings together some 2 500 groups involved in rural development initiatives. It is no surprise therefore that Byssbon currently has been entrusted with the task of setting up a data base for Jämtland's Carrefour, a rural information centre supported by the European Commission. Residential training courses in computers are also organised on a regular basis.
The impressive success of this action naturally raises the question of its transferability to other "fragile" rural areas, a question which is not easy to answer, since in addition to the strong will of the local people, which enabled them to reverse a negative trend as well as to gain a strong foothold in the "information society", the Byssbon experience emerge in a favourable setting, which is not always the case in rural areas: a still steadfast pioneer spirit, in a highly developed country, solidarity networks that are active and well-organised, a "citizens" society enjoying strong support from the public authorities who seem to be particularly in tune with the needs of the local people, especially local women. Leif Ahlin also offers his personal explanation: "You know, I think that a big part of our success can be put down to the level of education of the local people - this is relatively high in the village and that made things easier."
(*) In Sweden, a "Municipality" ("Kommun") is the smallest administrative entity. Run by elected representatives, it is responsible for several key sectors, such as social security, primary and secondary education, zoning, assistance to companies, culture, etc. A municipality is always made up of several villages and often spans a very large area: in the province of Jämtland, for instance, there are only 8 municipalities.
Land area: 50 000 km2 (12% of Swedish territory)
Population: 136 000 inhabitants (1.5% of the Swedish population)
1975-1994: + 2%
Public sector: 41%
Other services: 30%
GBV (Glesbygdsverket / National Office for Rural Development)
Splintvägen 1, S-83172 Östersund
Tel: +46 63 826 00 - Fax: +46 63 862 92