Haiti human interest story: Bringing women autonomy through village savings & loan associations

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Like so many places in Haiti, idyllic natural beauty and the harsh reality of deep poverty collide in Tiawa.

Perched atop a mountain in Léogâne, Tiawa affords an extraordinary view of the surrounding area. Unfortunately, much of that vista is scarred by destruction. Haiti’s devastating January 12, 2010 earthquake destroyed 80 to 90 percent of the buildings in Léogâne, according to official estimates. It was the area hardest hit by the quake.

In Tiawa, the quake gave rise to an impromptu camp of 1,500 people; people who had lost many members of their families, and nearly all of their possessions. CARE began supporting the families with emergency relief supplies immediately after the earthquake. Now CARE is helping them make the transition from recovery to rebuilding.

Today the camp’s population is steadily dwindling. Many residents have rebuilt their homes. Others have moved to improved shelters built with assistance from CARE or other aid groups.

Integral to CARE’s five-year, $100 million program to help Haitians rebuild their country are initiatives to help them develop their own economic opportunities after they’ve moved out the camps. In the fall, CARE launched the first Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) in Tiawa. VSLAs are self-managed savings groups. CARE teaches participants, the majority of whom are women, who save and loan money in small groups.

Members borrow money from the savings fund to pay household expenses and to start small businesses. The loans are repaid with interest which is then shared among the group members. Participants earn a greater rate of return on their savings than they would in a bank, while building bonds with their neighbors. VSLA loan repayment rates are near 100 percent.

Crucially, VSLAs elevate the status of women in their communities by demonstrating how the economic empowerment of women helps not just women, but everyone around them, including men and boys.

At one of the first VSLA meetings in Tiawa, the group sang a song composed by VSLA field manager Yves François Constant. “Where VSLA people stand, there’s no space for misery,” they sang. ”Where VSLA people stand, women have autonomy.”

The Tiawa VSLA groups grew out of a gender-based violence counseling and support group CARE launched after the earthquake. After helping women survivors cope with the aftermath of gender-based violence, CARE is helping them take the next step by offering a VSLA program as a way to help the women weave their own economic safety nets. CARE’s objective is to help women, and therefore their families, gain autonomy.

Although all of the money in a VSLA comes from the participants, CARE is facilitating VSLA growth in Tiawa and elsewhere in Haiti by fostering connections with responsible local businesses. Through CARE, VSLAs will soon team with Haiti-based Earthspark International to market green and clean energy products in Haitian communities. Conservation and better environmental stewardship are essential to Haiti’s long-term recovery.

And to make sure their growing savings are stored safely, CARE will partner with a local mobile phone provider to develop a mobile wallet designed specifically for VSLAs. It will allow VSLA members to securely store and transfer money electronically, eliminating the need for group members to guard large stores of cash.

Though the VSLA model is new to the earthquake zone, it is not new to Haiti. Prior to the earthquake, CARE helped groups of women start VSLAs in Grand Anse, in the southwestern corner of the country. When survivors from other parts of Haiti poured into Grand Anse after the earthquake, the families with women who participated in VSLAs were better able to cope.

“Parents had to accommodate and feed their [returning] children and grandchildren,” said Léonne Rochas, a regional VSLA chairwoman in Grand Anse. “The financial autonomy they gained from VSLAs helped them a lot.”

CARE and the original Haitian VSLA groups in Grand Anse are now rapidly expanding.

“We don’t advertise this product. It does its own marketing,” Rochas says. “The women around us have seen how savings have gained us more respect in our families and communities. We are role models now.”