Increasing Women's Financial Freedom Spurs Economic Empowerment Community-Wide

Beyond ensuring their decent health, safe shelter and education, women's economic empowerment is the proven key to victory over extreme urban poverty. With financial independence and mobility, mothers can provide healthy meals for their children, pay for inoculations and school fees and upgrade their dwellings and businesses. At WomenStrong International we are seeing in real time the remarkable transformation of women through group-based savings programs that are enabling mothers and grandmothers to start and grow small enterprises and become confident stewards of their families' future.

In fact, the program has proven so effective in Manyatta, the largest slum in Kenya's third largest city, Kisumu, that WomenStrong consortium member Alice Visionary Foundation Project (AVFP) is now doubling the number of savings groups and participating women, positively affecting the lives of more than 1,000 family members.

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With most women-led businesses still shunned by formal financial institutions worldwide, Alice Visionary and WomenStrong International have sought to fill this gap in Manyatta with our Group Savings and Loan program, adapted from a highly effective, rural-focused strategy developed and widely disseminated by CARE International.

Alice Visionary trains the women and a few men participating in the savings groups in financial literacy, savings, lending and in their responsibility to each other, and follows up to help every participant succeed in meeting individual goals. This person-to-person mentoring and the sense of solidarity and commitment among group members are among the most powerful elements in Alice Visionary's toolkit, as witnessed by women's demonstrated ability to pay off their loans, increase their monthly incomes and open, expand, diversify and hire for their small businesses.

Twenty-seven-year-old Lillian Akoth, a Manyatta-based tailor with a second child on the way and barely able to meet her family's needs, bought a second sewing machine with the loans she took from her group's savings and later opened a barber shop and M-Pesa (mobile money transfer) service, all out of her Kibuye Market stall. When her net monthly income grew to $450, she hired two young people to help her run the two new businesses.

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With similar support and training, Rose Akoko, 58, who had been unable to feed her eight family members, quickly became a savings group champion, able to pay off her loans, buy a cow and build small houses for her two sons. Rose has since planted an urban vegetable garden that nourishes her family and leaves her a half-sack of vegetables to sell, for a tidy additional $10-20 a week.

Once women such as Mmes. Akoth and Akoko have proven themselves in these and other ways, Alice Visionary, in partnership with the Bank of Africa, helps the savings group participants set up and manage individual bank accounts that will accept mobile bank deposits, thereby guaranteeing the safety of each depositor's hard-earned savings. Security is far less assured otherwise. Simply to make a deposit, women may be compelled to carry their cash on foot across un-policed alleyways just to get to the bank in Kisumu's downtown, where they may have to stand, waiting, for hours while being harassed or belittled by guards or others.

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Alice Visionary now is trying to bring a few more men into the groups. Men are important to the success of this program in several ways. First, the women need to know that their husbands appreciate the benefits to their families of their wives' increased earnings, so that those earnings won't be appropriated and then drunk or gambled away. It is helpful, therefore, when men participate in the savings groups to understand that this is not a feminine pastime but an essential activity valued by their peers. Also, in some banks in Kenya and worldwide, women are not allowed to open bank accounts, making men's buy-in critical to women being able to enjoy the advantages of financial services and the range of economic freedoms they have earned.

This is not a hard sell. After witnessing Rose, Lillian and so many other women grow their small businesses, even an assistant tribal chief, a respected community leader, wants to be part of the program, making it more likely that even the most macho Manyatta men will view Alice Visionary's savings groups as clubs worth joining.

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Truth is, financial autonomy and freedom work for everyone. They expand the world of options, enabling flexibility and choice. When women's earnings increase, so do their ability to provide for their families, their self-respect and respect from their neighbors and communities. When men, too, have the opportunity to increase their savings and earnings, the chances of their resenting or sabotaging their women diminish substantially. With these effective, group-led programs, everyone saves, everybody earns, and across the entire community, everybody wins - from assistant tribal chiefs, delighting in their newfound purchasing power, to the smallest newborn, enjoying the nutrient-rich milk of a healthy mother, to ordinary men, boys, women and girls, their spirits now kindled by hope.