Recently Christian Aid’s Gender Justice Specialist, Baishali Chatterjee visited the ITL Women’s Economic Empowerment and Leadership project in Sierra Leone to support the project to achieve its objectives. She shares some of her reflections below.
It was a great pleasure and privilege for me to be able to see the ITL project in Sierra Leone firsthand. This project is so exciting because it not only supports the running of vital village savings and credit groups (VSLAs) but also enhances their productivity by connecting them to digital technology. At its core, the project seeks to strengthen and empower women and bring financial services in hard-to reach rural communities using mobile money technology.
In the two project areas, levels of poverty continue to be very high, affecting women disproportionately. Women are already lacking in education, and access and control over economic resources, yet they are responsible for most unpaid care and domestic work responsibilities. Within this context, the project looks at existing gender power relations within the household and at community level, and offers an important way of bridging the digital gender divide
I first visited the ITL project communities in Ngolahun, Kailahun district, where Christian Aid partner SEND is working. We were welcomed by a very enthusiastic group of VSLA members (all women) who sang and danced and showed us the way to the community centre. We were surrounded by a group of VSLA members and community stakeholders, including chiefs (Paramount Chief, Town Chief and Deputy Town Chief). There were also a couple of female town chiefs and female section chiefs which in itself is notable and the result of the work of our partner, SEND, demonstrating that VSLAs as a tool for economic empowerment, also helps put other opportunities in the hands of women. The region grows coffee, cocoa, potatoes and is into palm oil production. Enthusiastic community members were eager to tell us about their VSLA group where each of the 20 members make a weekly contribution of ten Leones(Le:10).
A savings and credit union has been created in the village and women have used seed money to start fishing businesses or invest in agriculture activities. The women have received training through this project in the use of mobile money from the project partner; Orange Money, a mobile phone company working in Sierra Leone.
The men in attendance also shared their experiences about the Gender Model Family concept initiated by the partner. This is where women and men create gender equitable family models, with shared decision-making and redistribution of unpaid care and domestic roles. Women now play a greater role in agriculture and other livelihoods-focused work and have more equal control over family finances.
We also made another visit to Pujehan to the village of Geoma, (where the other ITL partner RADA works) - a village of about 1000 people. In this village the VSLA members proudly displayed their VSLA collection boxes (1 box per group will soon be converted into a digital box via Orange Money). Currently there are 3 groups of VSLA members in the village of about 160 people. They spoke about how the creation of the VSLA groups has enabled them to access credit in times of need, particularly around health, education and livelihoods. When asked about the critical changes in the lives of the women that have occurred, The VSLA members spoke about more equal decision making and reduction in gender-based violence. They also spoke about the ability to challenge strong cultural norms in the village which would have earlier prevented women from speaking up (reflected in the popular saying ‘the hen doesn’t crow’). Now women are beginning to occupy village-level administrative positions. The group members were excited about the up-coming digitization opportunities with Orange which will also create additional income opportunities for VSLA members.
Seeing the enthusiasm and exuberance of the VSLA members was life-affirming. It also demonstrated how much of an impact can be achieved on the ground through micro-interventions. However, the most important take-away from this is that women’s economic empowerment initiatives must embrace the achievement of gender justice at its core. They must actively challenge the many forms of injustices and rights violations that women continue to face and challenge barriers that seek to prevent women and girls from achieving their true human and economic potential – a goal that is at the heart of this ITL project.