VSLAs: Focusing on adolescent girls is an investment in the future

by 01st Dec 2014
Young women at a savings group meeting in Kenya Young women at a savings group meeting in Kenya © CARE Kenya/Awino Nyamolo

The Trust Women conference (on 18-19 November) was fundamentally about women’s rights. You can’t talk of rights without talking of financial services because this encompasses so much else. Why are women not accessing education? Why do women not have access to banks? Why are women being discriminated against?

The root of all of this lies in economic empowerment. For example, if a woman is empowered economically, she can own some land – with land she has collateral, she has assets, she can make informed choices and be more in control of her own and her family’s life. She won’t let her daughter get into a situation where she could be trafficked or married when she is still a child.

Savings groups are the first step

Savings groups are an important step in the journey to combat poverty but they are also a springboard to achieving women’s empowerment and gender equality. CARE invented VSLAs (Village Savings and Loan Associations) in 1991 and we’re now reaching 4.2 million people in VSLA groups around the world. Through VSLAs, women are able to save, access credit, and starting their own businesses. In Kenya, for example, Pauline, one of the women who joined a VSLA in her village, took a £15 loan from her savings group to start her own business. Three years later, Pauline has her own barber shop, worth over £4,800.

Changing the perspective of formal financial services

Nevertheless, this is part of a long journey. We need to change the banks’ perspective of the poor and help them to work with women at a grassroots level. We need to help women access financial services more easily so that they don’t travel two days to get to the bank. One of the ways we can do this is to engage with mobile network service providers to link people in rural areas to formal services. Once they can access funds, they can get into business, and, from there, a whole social transformation can take place. They can earn money, provide better food for the family and take their children to better schools.

Our work starts with the adolescent girl

CARE, in partnership with MasterCard Foundation, is now implementing a four-year multi-country financial inclusion programme in Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Rwanda. In Burundi we are principally working with adolescent girls. Some of them are still in school but, amongst those who have dropped out, there are ones as young as 13 who are already parents. This perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty: if she has no education, she can find no work to earn an income and no means by which to improve the lives of her family. This is an uncertain and vulnerable age for a girl so we try to strengthen and empower her as much as we can. 

Investing in the future

What we’re doing with younger women is new: by focussing on adolescent girls we are investing in the future. Our programmes teach life skills and confidence-building and an awareness of one’s rights. Our groups are also a safe place for girls to talk about their bodies, their fears and to share their learnings. Teenage girls typically don’t go to school during menstruation because they can’t afford sanitary towels. With the money they save through VSLAs, they are buying sanitary towels and staying in school. The groups also talk about how to relate to men, when to say yes and when to say no. An educated girl understands her rights and is better equipped to say no to sex.

We introduce girls to financial education when they are young. The approach has been particularly successful among young mothers whose children benefit from school fees, uniforms and books. Think of the impact of this within five years’ time. An informed mother, who is financially literate and understands money, can make better decisions for herself and children. Her potential is endless.

Nelly Otieno

Nelly works with CARE Canada as Chief of Party for the POWER Africa project which is a partnership between CARE Canada and the MasterCard Foundation. The project, on economic empowerment through financial inclusion, targets adolescent girls and women in Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire.

Nelly has over 24 years of experience in micro finance and enterprise development. This includes work in rural and formal Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies in Kenya, the Grameen methodology in micro-finance, Village Banks and Savings Groups (SGs) using the Mata Masu Dubara (Women on the Move) approach. Nelly introduced SGs in Kenya in 2004 and saw them grow from 10 participants to almost 700,000 through CARE Kenya. Her contribution in financial inclusion started from working with communities in savings mobilisation and accessing credit from personal savings, and working with formal financial institutions to develop appropriate products for the unbanked to enable then access financial services from formal financial institutions. She pioneered linkage of informal savings groups to formal financial institutions through mobile technology.