'When You Have Money, Your Voice Will be Heard by All'

Photo: Terhas Berhe/CARE

How VSLA Savings Groups Promote Gender Equality

By Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro and Michelle Nunn 

As wealthy nations start on the road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and low- and middle-income countries fight the third wave, world leaders have begun to look to the future. As we rebuild our communities after this devastating crisis, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ask ourselves how we build forward, not just back, towards a world that is more equitable and just than ever before.

While there are many power imbalances in our world– economic, racial, geographic, political – none is so universal as the power imbalance between genders. Regardless of socio-economic class, geography, race, ethnicity, or religion, when times are toughest, the last to eat and the first to suffer are women and young girls. Many times, women are disenfranchised and deprived of agency because they are prevented from making their own economic decisions.

“Even the most vulnerable and disenfranchised women can, with the right tools, become powerful economic and social actors.”

One specific area where millions of women around the world are particularly excluded is from the formal financial and banking systems. This exclusion is particularly stark in low-income countries and fragile and conflict-affected areas. Yet women are expected to provide unpaid labor, care, and help keep their local communities afloat. Women and girls in such contexts face historic and systemic inequalities, while dealing daily with the risk of violence, harassment and abuse, inadequate medical access, poverty, hunger, and displacement. And COVID has only further revealed and amplified already existing injustices.

But correcting this imbalance is within our reach. If anything, the last 30 years have shown the development community a proven path to rectifying economic injustice – one founded on the premise that even the most vulnerable and disenfranchised women can, with the right tools, become powerful economic and social actors.

Over the last two decades, CARE has facilitated VSLA Savings Groups for 8.4 million people

One of these tools is the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) – self-managed Savings Groups of 15 to 25 people (mostly women) who meet regularly to save their money in a safe space to access small loans, and emergency assistance. In 1991, when a group of women from Niger reached out to CARE with the idea to collaborate on a micro-savings program and launched the first VSLA Savings Group program, few anticipated the enormous impact these groups would have and are still having today.

Over the last two decades, CARE has facilitated VSLA Savings Groups for 8.4 million people across 51 countries. At their core, VSLA Savings Groups support women to achieve greater economic empowerment and build social cohesion. Group members achieve near-immediate access and eventual control over their own resources. Over time, complemented by tools that engage men and other community members, VSLA Savings Group participants gain increased independence and influence over decisions in their homes and beyond.  This spring, Nomao Hadzia, a member of a VSLA Savings Group in Niger, told CARE, “Before the advent of the groups, we lived quite hard…we were put aside… Now we are awake, we know our rights and the ways to claim them.”

The benefits to VSLA Savings Group members have gone far beyond just economic empowerment to become a platform that women use to improve other areas of their lives. 78% of women working together in groups are more likely to be engaged in public decision-making. 66% are participating in community meetings, and 50% are actively raising their own ideas or ideas from other group members during those meetings. In Rwanda, women in VSLA Savings Groups that worked to change gender dynamics were 55% less likely to experience gender-based violence.

Put simply, VSLA Savings Groups have proven to be incubators of women’s leadership and a vehicle to advance gender equality. While VSLA Savings Groups are not the only kind of women’s group that can accomplish this, they are powerful because they give women the tools to tackle much bigger problems beyond their lack of access to investment capital. When women organize as a collective, they have been able to take action to reduce food security and gender-based violence, increase political participation, respond to conflict and disasters, and improve maternal and child health.

The money is important, but it is the voices of all these women, in solidarity, that really matters.

The pandemic has highlighted the resilience of VSLA Savings Groups and their long-term potential to transform the lives of millions of women and girls. New data collected by CARE noted that while governments, economies, and social systems struggle to respond to COVID-19, women in VSLA Savings Groups all over the world stepped up to offer solutions in their own communities.

The data revealed how women in VSLA Savings Groups were half as likely to report challenges accessing income, food, or healthcare compared to women who were not part of these groups. This is not only because women had savings to fall back on, but also because they had built networks, leadership experience, and shared trust of acting together in the face of crisis. That helped them connect—even when it was at a distance—to meet the shocks they were facing.

But even VSLA Savings Groups are not a panacea. Government structures, power dynamics with NGOs, and donor approaches to aid must all prioritize, value, and fund local leadership—especially women’s leadership. As CARE’s report states, “this requires reframing our assumptions of who creates solutions and makes decisions—not just in a crisis, but always. We need to transform global aid to embrace the leadership of local women and get them the resources they need to implement their own solutions.”

That is why, CARE, in our capacity as one of the co-leaders of the Action Coalition on Economic Justice and Rights, will renew and expand on our commitment to VSLA Savings Groups as a critical driver of women’s economic empowerment during the Paris Generation Equality Forum.

First, CARE is committing to support at least 10 million additional women and girls to strengthen existing VSLA Savings Groups and form new ones that will advance local, women-led economic justice and rights initiatives. CARE will do this through programming and by influencing governments and select private sector actors to integrate the VSLA Savings Group model into their policies and programs in partnership with key stakeholders. Our goal is to contribute to the reduction of women without access to banking and strengthen social protection policies; two areas outlined in the Global Acceleration Plan for economic justice and rights in the Gender Equality Forum.

Second, and because we know that local, women-led and women-rights organizations have the ability to lead effectively in crises, CARE is also making a commitment at the Gender Equality Forum under the Feminist Movement and Leadership Action Coalition. CARE will devote $30 million to resource and support women, girls, and gender non-conforming people and the organizations they lead to be at the center of all humanitarian decision-making processes that impact their lives.

As one woman in a Sudanese VSLA Savings Group said, “When you have money, your voice will be heard by all.” The money is important, but it is the voices of all these women, in solidarity, that really matters. We can support this solidarity and help women and girls to unlock their leadership potential, so they can dream big and see real change in their local communities in the coming years. In the words of Sani Marliya, a VSLA Savings Group participant in Niger, “We are no longer afraid, no fear, no cold in the eyes. I can speak in front of any assembly. And if it is a question of defending our rights and our feminine cause… I will defend our interests whatever the cost, and by our own means.”