Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Powerful Women of Bouala

Posted by Tessie San Martin, Plan International USA CEO/President
The women of the Bouala village savings and loan (VSL) saw us coming and broke out in a joyful dance, with babies in tow (see picture left).

Bouala is a village in Nementenga province, one of the poorest in Burkina. The province has only one paved road; electricity and running water are rare. It boasts the second highest acute malnutrition rate in the country, at 14% - a scary statistic when you consider what such a high rate means in terms of stunted growth and development, and sheer wasted human potential. But the women of Bouala are determined to get ahead.

This group of Bouala women gets together every Thursday. Each of the 32 members must deposit 100 CFA (about 20 cents) weekly. They can give more, but this is the minimum. The amount they are saving gets registered in a simple account book. They can borrow up to 3 times the amount they have saved, and have a short time to pay back, after which they are assessed 10% interest every week on the outstanding amount.

The meeting we attended is all business. The women stand up one by one to give their weekly deposit. After deposits are taken, those who want to borrow stand up, one by one. You are not allowed to talk except about business, or else you get fined. It keeps folks attentive and creates a sense of purpose. This is serious business. One of the women, who is numerate and literate, keeps track of the accounts. She reads out the total amount they have saved - over 20,000 CFA (about $40). They clap.

This is not long term capital. It is meant to help the women generate extra income. Many have very modest business activities on the side (about 4 are borrowing today to make cakes and fritters they will then sell on the market). This extra money can mean the difference between a healthy and well nourished child, and one who is not. It helps the family have a cushion, should they get hit with unexpected expenses (the women can also voluntarily contribute every week to a social fund, which the group uses to provide extra cash for that woman who has a wedding to pay for, a funeral, or some other major family event).

The VSL is a tool Plan uses worldwide to help families meet the minimum needs of their children. The mechanism gets extra money in the hands of women, who are much more likely than men to use the income to feed, clothe, and school their children. But more importantly, the program teaches women discipline, accountability, and the power of collective action. It helps expand their, and their children's, horizons. That's worth dancing for.

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