On the idyllic hilltop in Ebinat, a group of 20 women are meeting and greeting each other. One of them is carrying a small lock-box that looks like a treasure chest. Its content is of similar worth. A pile of cash becomes visible as the record keeper places the box on the grass and opens it. As the chatter slowly fades, the women take their seats in a circle around the box.
“We used to stand behind men, our place was in the kitchen. We had no opportunities and received no information about what was happening in our own communities. But now we depend on no one and earn our own money,” Tanugt says as she looks to the other women. She is the chairperson of the village savings and loans association (VSLA) group.
The small town of Ebinat is at the heart of one of the most food insecure and drought prone areas in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia. The community used to be characterized by a strict, patriarchal structure with women having little to no rights. This changed, when CARE established a project to secure food sufficiency for farmers in 2014. As part of increasing access to healthy food and expanding economic activities particularly for women, CARE introduced the concept of savings and loan associations, which quickly found a sympathetic ear with the women.
“The group helped us become independent, access loans whenever any of us had a good idea, generate income, and recontribute to our savings. With this cycle, we became self-sufficient. Moreover, we gained confidence to challenge the norm in our society. We use our meetings to teach each other and discuss issues such as gender roles, harmful attitudes and social empowerment,” Tanugt says. Just as most other women in the group, she speaks from her own experience. Tanugt got married when she was 18 and quickly became a victim of domestic abuse. Her husband used to beat her and with little food on their plates, she was forced to send her three children to work.
“When I got to know about CARE in a community meeting, I jumped at the opportunity to change my life for the better. I started working in a big farm and saved money through which I was able to cultivate my own land. I gained confidence to get divorced from my husband. Our group also made it possible for me to save up enough money to get our own house constructed. Now my children can finally go to school and I recently even bought land for my oldest son,” Tanugt says proudly. In total, CARE established over 1,650 VSLA groups, reaching over 31,000 people, in the last five years.
The women meet twice a month. Each member saves 10 Birr (US$ 0.35) each month, out of which 1 Birr goes to a social fund that supports members in times of need, for example during pregnancy. The group is then able to give loans to members who want to start a new business or strengthen an existing one. “Previously we had to go to the rich people in our village to get loans and had to pay them back with hefty fees. Now, we can borrow money from each other with small interest rates,” Tanugt says. Her next mission is to construct a grind mill and open a small spice shop in the village.
“Our beginnings were difficult. The men in our communities did not want us to meet. But our persistence and engagement slowly created a movement of support. Now, nothing can stop us.”
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