Self-Help Groups Show Power of Investing in Women

Friday, April 7, 2017

Members of an Ethiopian self-help group supported through Foodgrains Bank member World Relief Canada meet with delegation participants. ( Photo: Joanne Beach)

ERDO CEO “enthralled” by dignity and confidence of participants

The value and power of investing in women—that’s what impressed David Adcock, CEO of Emergency Relief & Development Overseas (ERDO), during visits to savings and self-help group programs targeting women in Kenya, Ethiopia and Cambodia.

The visits, organized as a delegation by Canadian Foodgrains Bank for staff and board members from its member agencies, also brought home to him just how much can be achieved by communities working together.

“I was enthralled by the sense of entrepreneurship we witnessed in so many communities, and the dignity, confidence and enthusiasm with which participants approached savings groups,” says Adcock of the visits, which studied how the groups promote food security in their communities.

For the Foodgrains Bank, savings groups are a common component of many programs that support people in improving their livelihoods.

Local groups are usually made up of women who, in many countries where Foodgrains Bank members work, often have less access to and less say over household money and spending than men.

Each week, group members meet and contribute a set amount to a group savings account—sometimes as little as the equivalent of a few Canadian cents. Group members then take turns receiving a loan from the group pot.

A few cents a week might not seem like much, but even small weekly contributions can relatively quickly make a big difference for members living in poor communities.

The loans from the group allow the women to avoid local moneylenders, who can charge exorbitantly high fees and can trap community members in cycles of lending.

Many group members use their loan to start small businesses such as setting up roadside stands, or purchasing livestock. They pay back their loan with a small interest rate.

Groups count out each contribution before it is added to the pot in order to ensure complete transparency. This treasurer from a savings group in Kenya is counting the money before it is added to the group pot. (Photo: Joanne Beach)

Adcock recalls meeting a group in Kenya where members were each contributing about fifty cents a week to their savings account.

When it was her turn to receive a loan, one young woman used her loan to put a down payment on a motorbike, explains Adcock. It allowed her to start a taxi business, driving customers from place to place on her bike.

Before the group, she hadn’t been able to get credit.

One of the most immediate spin-off effects of more money being controlled by women is more food being consumed in families.

In Ethiopia, staff with the Terepeza Development Association, a long-term local implementing partner of Foodgrains Bank member World Relief Canada, indicated that members of the self-help group had, on average gone from one meal a day during the hunger season, to two or three meals a day.

“It was really remarkable what women were able to accomplish by saving fifty cents a week,” says Adcock.

Another self-help group, also in Ethiopia, pooled their money to purchase food in bulk when the prices were low, while a third group was pushing for all its members to have at least one milking cow, goat or sheep to better provide for their children.

“There was a very strong sense of “we’re in this together,” says Adcock. “They weren’t looking for outside help.”

He suspects the community support aspect of the self-help groups may have been part of what made the groups stick together so well, and for so long—especially when they were faced with a lack of support from their families.

In all three countries, many women had taken on significant risk to join these groups, often defying objections or mockery from their husbands—although the success of the groups often ended up speaking for themselves.

As the husband of one group member said:

“I used to tease my wife about going to the savings group meetings, I thought she was wasting her time. Last year our crops failed and we ran out of money for food. I went to the money lender but was turned away, and I finally had to tell my wife we had no money for food—I was deeply ashamed. My wife told me we could get a loan from her savings group for food, which we were able to pay back through a small business she had started. I am now a member of the savings group as well. This group saved me from shame: from shame in my family and in my community. There is great shame if you cannot feed your family.”

Adcock notes that there was a strong sense of pride and unity amongst the women in the groups, some of whom had purchased matching outfits. Groups even had separate tins, where they would collect contributions towards things like births, deaths and weddings in the community.

“In communities of need, if you can invest in women—the ones who know things like the price of food, who have responsibility for the family and who are the providers of care—you can have a ripple effect in the entire family life,” he says.

What touched him deeply, says Adcock, is the sense that “women weren’t just taking part in the group to improve the lives of their families, but to improve their entire community.”

“It was a reminder that we have more in common than what distinguishes us. Investing in women has an incredible impact. This study delegation was an important reminder to me of that.”

Other participants in the delegation include Allison Enns, Mennonite Central Committee Canada; Janet Karsgaard, World Relief Canada; Joanne Beach, The Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada; and Mike Salomons, Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

–Amanda Thorsteinsson, Communications Coordinator

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