Written by Partners Asia Team
Learning the Power of Saving
The cycle of debt for extremely poor families in Myanmar can be crushing. All too often, desperate women secure private loans with very high interest rates to meet the gap between income and daily living expenses. Very quickly they become trapped, working to simply pay daily interest while their debt increases. Women for the World (WFW) was founded in 2004 by a handful of young women determined to break this cycle, and tackle the basic needs of extremely poor or displaced women and their families.
Using a savings group model, Women for the World builds women’s strength and confidence. WFW creates networks of women, who save money and make decisions for their communities collectively. In order to join a WFW group, a woman must save a small initial amount of money. As the community savings grow, the group decides how to invest their resources. Not surprisingly, access to affordable housing is a primary focus. Established savings groups offer loans for individuals, businesses and the education of children. These loans carry a low interest of 3 – 4%, compared to the 20 – 35% daily interest charged by money lenders.
Currently, there are more than 80 networking groups in the Yangon, Mandalay, and Delta regions, and Rakhaing and Karen states with 3,750 members. WFW provides women’s rights training, capacity building, life skills training, and savings models. All of these activities support local women to lead their own initiatives within their communities.
In Insein Township, where the program started in 2009, there are 200 members and 30 households in one savings group. The women in this group had either migrated from rural areas, were squatters or were evicted from central Yangon. Their top priority was housing, and they decided to invest their savings to create a small village, centrally located for day labor and within walking distance to schools for the children. The women built their own thatched houses, walkways and gardens, and are now in the process of designing a community center.
One woman interviewed had been a squatter. She had a small business repairing bicycles, and lived under tarps. As she was trying to save money to join the savings group, she was worried the local authorities would arrest her, so she checked in with them all the time. She eventually joined the group and built her own house. When it was done she resumed her bicycle repair business. For the first week, she had to run home three times a day to see her house. Her excitement bubbled over in the interview, “These are my walls, this is my floor, and this is my ceiling. I feel like I have won the lottery. I have a very peaceful feeling.”
Women for the World savings groups empower women to lead and make decisions. They see the benefits within their communities, they have a network, and they are safe. Not surprisingly, they are willing to train other groups, and plans are afoot to expand into new regions this year.