Around the world, women carry out 66% of work, produce 50% of food and yet only receive 10% of income . This chronic economic vulnerability is to a large extent caused by the unequal distribution of power, resources and responsibilities to the benefit of men. Economically strengthening women contributes to their social empowerment, but it is not sufficient for women’s rights to be fully respected. A general mobilization of society is required. This especially involves convincing men that the gain in power for one does not mean a loss for the other.
Savings: a tool for the economic empowerment of women
In many countries, access to both financial products and bank accounts requires the husband’s agreement or property deeds that women rarely have. While 2.5 billion people in the world do not have access to formal banking services or microfinance, women are the first to be excluded. In developing countries, 46% of men say they have a bank account, against only 37% of women.
Overall, 2.5 billion people in the world do not have access to financial services, and despite the development of microfinance, the most vulnerable populations who live in remote regions are still excluded from it. In the early 1990s, it was to support these communities that CARE became the first NGO to develop the methodology of Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs). This model is based on non-institutionalized saving, a poverty reduction tool that is too often ignored, to the benefit of credit. Yet savings make it possible to build up assets that reduce vulnerability to shocks (death, climate hazards). By pooling their savings, VSLA members, 70% of whom are women, have the possibility to take out loans to develop micro-income generating activities (trade, market gardening, small-scale livestock farming, etc.). The repayment charges are subsequently spread out among the members.
In addition to an economic gain, the technical and legal training delivered by the NGOs who supervise the launch of VSLAs strengthens the generic capacities of women. The development of projects and the participation in the self-management of the group also play an important role in their self-confidence. Women thus gain access to a space of power. But this space remains closed. What is the situation in terms of strengthening their social role at the family and community levels?
Some women VSLA members no longer hesitate to assert themselves within their families. According to a study conducted in 11 countries in 2012, 39.7% of the women members of VSLAs interviewed say that they have an influence on the decisions taken by their husbands (against 29.8% in 2009). Similarly, 28% say that they have a strong influence in their community (22% in 2009). 70% say that they have more control over their financial resources (against 65.5% in 2009). As for domestic violence, it fell over the same period from 22.3% to 17.9%. Some women no longer hesitate to assert themselves within their villages, in particular via collective projects, such as grain banks. By storing grain to sell it at a low price, particularly during the lean season, these women contribute to creating a food safety net. Their involvement in this type of resilience mechanism makes these women fully-fledged actors in local development.
Finally, they no longer hesitate to take part in local governance and to defend their rights among their communities. A study  conducted in 60 villages in Niger shows that in 2004, 45 of the 260 positions of municipal councilor were held by women members of VSLAs who had created their own income-generating activities. In 2011, there were 140 of them. The increase is striking.
Change thought patterns
This emancipation does not, however, come about by itself. Gender stereotypes are often so deeply embedded in mentalities that women themselves perpetuate behavior that holds them back. An evaluation study conducted in India in 2006 showed that some women were using their savings to pay dowries or for abortions of female fetuses. Yet VSLAs provide an ideal platform to inform women of their rights. The awareness-raising sessions can cover a wide range of topics, such as genital mutilation, inheritance and early marriages. Consequently, women have a knowledge base that allows them to make informed choices.
Another essential vehicle is, of course, equal access to an education that develops critical reasoning just as much as basic knowledge. For this, gender must be mainstreamed into every level of the education system. Educating children about gender would avoid hostile reactions on the part of boys and men to the economic empowerment of women. The acquisition or inheritance of land by women in regions where natural resources are limited often arouses hostile reactions.
Similarly, the economic contribution that women make to the expenditure of their families upsets the balance of power between the husband and wife. This may raise tensions, which are seen with men’s interference in the money earned, and sometimes even with domestic violence. To overcome this, husbands must be systematically involved in and committed to the definition of programs. The participation of men in social discussions, initiated with the VSLAs, contributes to changing thought patterns. The objective is to deconstruct the idea that women and men are opposed groups, where the gain in power for one involves a loss for the other.
General involvement of society: a need
Associating a direct link between micro-saving and women’s empowerment is therefore a vision that is too naive, which would consider emancipation as a purely individual process based on wealth creation. There has certainly been real progress, but for it to become widespread requires creating an environment that is conducive to respecting women’s rights. This can only come about through a social, political and collective movement.
States have a key role to play in this process. They have the power to recognize women’s rights at the legislative and national level. They must also involve local authorities to ensure that they are effectively implemented. If we take the example of women’s access to property ownership, it is a great pity that many local authorities that could intervene in the event of dispossessions lack training. It is for this reason that CARE works in Benin and Togo to disseminate the national laws in local languages and support local authorities in their application.
The mobilization for women’s rights to be respected must be collective at the national and international levels. It is the responsibility of donors to encourage the countries that receive aid to respect the universal principal of equality, for example, by including it as a condition in the economic agreements signed between States. While the empowerment of women and girls is recognized as being one of the engines for development, the international community must also learn lessons from the current MDGs. It is with the goals for women and girls that the least progress has been observed. Will the empowerment of women and girls have the place that it deserves in the next post-2015 international sustainable development agenda?
For further information:
« Femmes Lumière », a webdocumentary on women and micro-saving, produced by CARE France and TV5Monde, with the support of Agence Française de Développement, the Cartier Charitable Foundation and the Fondation de la Financière de l’Echiquier.
 World Bank, 2013.
 CARE, Plan, Barclays, Banking on Change: Breaking the Barriers to Financial Inclusion, 2012. A study conducted in Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mozambique, Peru, Tanzania, Vietnam, Uganda and Zambia.
 Elisabetta Micaro and Esther Rouleau, CARE Niger, Documentation de l’approche Mata Masu Dubara de CARE Niger. De la tontine à l’empowerment des femmes, November 2013.
 V. Sharma, CARE India, Enabling Empowerment: Strategic Impact inquiry, 2006.
 Elisabetta Micaro and Esther Rouleau, CARE Niger, Documentation de l’approche Mata Masu Dubara de CARE Niger. De la tontine à l’empowerment des femmes, November 2013. VSLA members are more informed and therefore generally more in favor of the enrolment of girls in school. They are also more inclined to adopt favorable behavior in terms of reproductive and sexual health than women who are not VSLA members.
 Helene Cheret, CARE Denmark, Women’s Fight for Land, 2013.
CEO of CARE France