As a humanitarian, I’d like to make the case for pinching an excellent idea from our development colleagues: savings groups. I believe this staple of development programming can not only save lives in emergencies, but also reduce gender inequalities.
The impacts of crises disproportionately affect women and girls, due largely to harmful gender norms. With 60% of the world’s poor predicted to live in fragile or conflict-affected states by 2030, it’s crucial to build women’s resilience to crises. Our research in Niger is investigating whether savings groups can support women’s economic empowerment in crisis settings, thereby increasing their resilience and protection. We’ll also see if they can even promote social cohesion in fragile settings. The research will take us to different areas of Niger, ranging from relatively stable development contexts to conflict-affected Diffa, where a full-blown humanitarian response is under way. There, internally displaced Nigeriens, host communities and refugees from Nigeria face food shortages, while living in fear of attack from non-state armed groups. How can savings groups work somewhere so fluid and volatile?
What’s so good about savings groups?
In a rural village close to Niamey, the capital of Niger, our hosts are eager to show off their self-run grain store. As the women dart between mud brick houses, they lift their voices in celebratory song, then break off giggling.
It’s a rare moment of coyness from self-assured women who have spent an hour telling us about their savings group. They explain how female neighbours meet weekly and deposit small amounts in a strong, lockable box; initial contributions were kick-started with a cash transfer from CARE. The elected Chair, a tall woman in an elegant animal-print scarf, records their contributions.
When a member is ready to set up a business, perhaps soap-making or selling vegetables, she takes out a loan. Borrowers repay capital and interest, group dividends grow and profits are shared among the members. The savings group facilitated the community’s grain store, run as an all-female collective. Women can also access loans to cope with personal emergencies, such as a death in the family, or community crises, such as droughts.
Meetings provide a supportive space and make it easy to gather women together for training in life and business skills, or awareness sessions on gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual and reproductive health. In conflict areas, this rapid mobilisation can also increase security from potential attack: sightings of strangers can be quickly shared among neighbours.
Is protection and women’s economic empowerment compatible?
Protection is challenging enough in emergencies and fragile and conflict-affected states – why attempt women’s economic empowerment? Isn’t that best left for later? Niger has the world’s highest levels of child marriage and the fastest-growing population. Women’s access to and control over finances is extremely limited, and 86% are illiterate. Add to that the complexity of displacement and women’s economic empowerment might seem unrealistic. While targeting women for livelihoods and cash can mitigate some forms of GBV, such as early marriage or transactional sex, if not carefully implemented such interventions can provoke a backlash, including domestic violence. Engaging men is critical.
How is empowerment ‘humanitarian’?
Protection requires a shift in power: empowerment is key. In Niger, women report boosted confidence as men see them succeed in earning money from which the whole family benefits; women contribute more to decisions at home and within the community. Where once they were quiet, they now speak up. This combination of earning, growing self-confidence and changing attitudes is contributing to protection. As one refugee woman noted, ‘We can talk about the disappearance of violence within the couple because the woman becomes independent in her home. She can take in her earnings, provide for the household and let peace reign’.
Even in a displacement and conflict context like Diffa, women are finding their voice privately and publicly. Convening displaced and host community women in savings groups has built understanding, trust and social cohesion. ‘Before being in the group I was shy and I used to always stay behind during village assemblies,’ said one woman. ‘I hid my face with my veil. Now I do not hide and I speak a lot.’
From village project to national politics
The best evidence of empowerment is the social movement that has grown from savings groups. Since the first group was established in 1991, members have formed Mata Masu Dubara (MMD) networks and studied advocacy and governance. In 2005, these networks formed federations focusing on women’s rights, partnering with other women’s associations to engage in electoral processes and law-making. The government of Niger has incorporated savings groups into its national strategy. In 2017, 1,069 MMD women ran for public office.
In the village, the women are in contact with their ‘sisters’ across Niger. I ask the Chairwoman if she’d consider running for office herself. The coyness returns. Momentarily.
Suzy Madigan is Senior Humanitarian Advisor (Gender & Protection) at CARE International UK. She is the author of the report ‘Women’s economic empowerment in emergency contexts. Niger: a case study’.