In a rural community in the small African country of Burundi, 16 women squeeze on to narrow wooden benches, arranged in a rugged circle under the shadow of banana trees. One woman’s toddler squirms in her lap. Another has tied her sleeping baby to her back with a wrap.
Each week, they come together in a World Relief Savings for Life group to learn about basic money management and to save money for emergencies, basic needs or small business investments. They open with prayer and, one by one, they put their savings for the week in a metallic box. The largest saving that week is $2, the smallest 35 cents.
Later, some women will take out loans from this pool. One woman – a farmer and widow with four children – plans to use her $30 loan to purchase a bicycle that will be used to transport her produce to the market, saving her a half-day’s walk with heavy loads. Another woman has borrowed $20 to send her daughter to school. The women share their plans for the loans with the group for support and accountability.
A 'savings circle'
This whole scene is achingly familiar. I was born and raised in a rural village in western Uganda by a single mother who fed and educated five of her own children and, over the years, over 20 orphans. To do this, she joined with other vulnerable women in her community to form a “savings circle”, as it was called at the time. With the capital from her savings circle, my mother was able to buy seeds and tools for farming, and begin several small businesses, like a hair salon. My father was an alcoholic, physically abusive and unreliable. So it fell on my mother to do it all.
My mother’s story is a common narrative for women in many rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. The Burundian women I am visiting remind me very much of her. I see myself in the children playing near the savings group.
Today, the most vulnerable in Africa are still women and children. But while in some ways it appears little has changed from the time of my mother’s savings group, we have also made great strides.
Through its savings programmes, World Relief has enabled over 100,000 women (and tens of thousands of men) around the world to achieve their financial goals, as well as something less tangible: hope. In resource-poor countries like Burundi, which has one of the highest chronic malnutrition rates in the world (56%) and where 78% of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day, programmes like this can be life-saving.
World Relief has been working in Burundi since 2004 to empower local churches to serve the most vulnerable in their communities. Its programmes include not just savings groups but maternal and child health projects, nutritional education, agriculture programmes, and family and child-strengthening courses.
The challenges that women face today are multi-faceted and not just economic. There is a dire need for investment in women’s empowerment and gender equality around the world. We also need to combat the violence against women that is all too common in places like Democratic Republic of Congo or in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Push back the darkness
Today, I celebrate these Burundian women who, like my mother, fight hard daily to push back the darkness that is poverty and injustice. And I celebrate organizations like World Relief, who continue to purposefully design and implement gender-responsive development programmes.
Hope is a powerful weapon against vulnerability. It can fuel persistence and hard work to create a better place to live. Now is the time to come alongside these women and empower them to lead in transforming their communities.