By Ms. Beatrice Rukanyanga
Village savings and loan associations (VSLAs) have been found to be a powerful tool for enabling millions of women to access loans, set up small businesses and improve their quality of life. However, as experience has also shown, VSLAs can also be a platform for addressing the social norms that sustain gender inequality, and can therefore contribute to the wider and more complex processes of women’s empowerment.
This is the important lesson that National Association of Women Organizations in Uganda (NAWOU) has learnt from her intervention(s) in Hoima, a remote District located in mid-Western Uganda. NAWOU has worked with her member organizations in Hoima since 2014, building their capacities to promote gender equality in the community. Beneficiaries of this project are drawn from Kyabigambire, Buhimba, Kyangwali, Buseruka, Kitoba and Bugambe sub-counties; Kigorobya Town Council; Hoima Town Council; with each represented by two women groups.
The VSLA approach to gender equality and women empowerment was introduced earlier in 2015 via a Training of Trainers for 60 initial participants from 25 groups who have since rolled out the training, reaching up to 6,000 people (approx. 240 VSLA groups). During weekly meetings, women discuss strategies for financial inclusion as well as gender equality issues.
Why VSLA and Gender Equality?
VSLA is a mechanism through which women can save their own resources and borrow from the pool without collateral. Teams save in saving boxes but can also deposit in Banks as the amount of savings grows. They hold regular dialogues over their savings, borrowing, welfare, investments. “In our case, at Kwataniza Women Farmer’s Group, we also use the meetings for VSLA to discuss gender equality issues in our communities. For example, we have been able to identify issues of girl child school dropout, cases of domestic violence, inadequate services at Health Centres especially maternal health and generally how to improve our well-being as women.”
So, what are we proud of?
When we talked to some of the VSLA group members, their words reflect the key benefits that many women experienced from their participation in VSLA: “VSLA has helped me to change my view about myself. I now believe in myself.” Across groups and communities, women report that experiences with VSLA – both through their economic and community benefits – has enabled them to build greater confidence and self-esteem.
In Kigorobya T/C, women reported greater knowledge in diverse topics including HIV/AIDS, sanitation and hygiene; while some women feel encouraged to share information and ideas with one another. Overall capacity building in gender equality, governance and leadership in VSLA groups has also led to better relationships and stability in homes, reduced gender-based violence as well as better standard of living.
One other key impact realized by the women is the improvement in household gender relations and capacity to participate in social groupings. The empowerment has also trickled down to the adolescent girl child as the mothers can now afford to meet the basic needs of their daughters.
In addition, the number of VSLA groups has also increased since the training, with membership ranging from 15-30 and considerable sums of money saved. A case in point is Take a Step group from Hoima T/C which trained 31 groups who have saved about 8 million shillings since February 2015.
…and what can we do better?
While specific impacts of VSLAs vary from village to village and woman to woman, overall the impact of NAWOU’s VSLA work in Hoima can be summed up by one participant’s response from Kitoba: “We are proud of what we have done, but we are sure we can do better.” While great advances have been made in some aspects of women’s skills, knowledge and confidence, fewer gains have been made in the laws, traditions and norms that guide women’s lives.
Going forward, the VSLA approach needs to be extended in all Sub-Counties of the District and if possible cover the whole country. This is because there has been increasing recognition that integrating gender concerns in VSLA into economic development initiatives facilitates exclusivity that benefits both women and men. A value chain approach both in research and extension service provision enables development initiatives to address the women’s needs and also contribute towards the transformation of small scale saving and credit into medium oriented systems.