People, especially women, who participate in a Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) often describe the great effect this has had on their lives. Well beyond what might be expected from access to financial services. They talk about feeling empowered to act in their community, gaining independence, but also support and respect. They even describe the experience as life-changing. Mariam’s story perhaps goes some way to explaining why.
In the village of Djaouaribougou, Mali, the VSLA holds a meeting once a week. Women pay their contributions and interest. But that week, when Mariam’s name was announced she lowered her head.
This was strange. She was vocal in the group, and never had problems with payment. Also unusual, Aliwatta, her husband, was not at the meeting.
Mariam, her eyes down, explained that she miscalculated the weeks. She claimed she had not realised this was payment day. When the secretary of the group repeated the rules, she held her youngest son, who was unwell, tightly in her arms, and did not say a word. Everybody decided Mariam should not be sanctioned, as it was her first error. The meeting moved on.
A day later, another sick child
When CARE staff visited Mariam’s little shop the next day a very old woman was watching another sick child.
“He burned his leg with boiling oil 2 days ago. It seems it is getting infected. He has fever and is shivering” she told them.
Mariam and her husband recently started the little shop, using credit from the group. It went well for a while but the poor yields of last season affected everybody. Most people had to sell almost everything. “Last year there were days when I was making about 700 FCFA profit, today if I make 300 FCFA in total I am happy.”
Mariam’s husband Aliwatta went to Bamako 2 months ago to look for work. “He calls from time to time, but he has never sent money since he left. I need to take care of my children and his parents. The old lady is my mother in-law. She, her husband and with one of his brothers are living here… I have to help them. They are all very old. What else can I do?”
In addition Mariam had been paying the group for both Aliwatta and herself since he left. 1050 FCFA each week plus the reimbursements. “How are you managing this? How can you get all this money?” she was asked.
Mariam, with an empty voice explained she used everything she saved for the boutique, and worked for others on top of running her business, but now there was almost nothing left.
“And the kids are sick. I think we all have malaria. The one you see there is feeling worse and worse, and I do not know what to do. I have not eaten almost anything for the last two days, but even so all I was able to give them is some millet porridge. How can I go to a doctor if I have no money for medicine?”
Support from the group
“Why aren’t you asking for support from the group? The Social Fund is the easiest option.”
Mariam nods. But she thinks she will not be allowed as she already had taken credits, “and the keys are with three different women. They will never agree to meet today for me.”
The CARE programme worker disagreed. He went to see the president of the group. From there everything changed. Everyone rushing to get the keys, the box, gather the members, get their opinion.
One group member came back with 2 keys and the consent of 11 other women to assist Mariam. The box and the third key arrived with somebody else. All languages were used, agreement from everywhere. “There is 8000 in the box, she can have 5000; it is with the agreement of all of us.”
And finally, in addition to deliveries of food gifts: “We need to send the child to the health centre now.”
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