Haitian Women Fighting Poverty

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We were invited by an NGO to participate in a program setting up Self Help Groups (SHGs) in Banan, Haiti, a large community near the border with the Dominican Republic, about 9 months ago. This is a very different model from the more traditional micro finance programs we have been doing and after going through training on how to facilitate this approach, we became quite excited about the potential for empowering women and families.

The Self Help Group approach is based on the idea that poverty is essentially a denial of basic human rights. The data on women living in poverty is shocking: 70% of the world’s poor are women. Even though women and girls put in more than half of all working hours they own less than 1% of the world’s goods. In many areas in the world they are excluded from education, health and social services and have no property or ownership rights. This exclusion of women and girls from access to and control of resources and opportunities for development reinforces poverty. In times of economic crisis, women bear the burden of providing for their families basic needs; one in three women cares for the nourishment and education of her children without a man’s help. This huge responsibility is often not balanced by access to decision making, either within the family or in community or political levels.

The importance of the empowerment of women to overcome poverty is the foundation of the above-mentioned context. The SHG model seeks to combine the social, economic and political aspects of community development, leading to empowerment. It is founded on rights-based principles that facilitate an atmosphere wherein individuals and communities realize their potential and work towards their own. Basically, the women in a community are invited to participate in a SHG—made up of about 20 members per group. Each group meets once a week, and sets up a savings program. Each woman commits to bringing in a certain amount of money each week, which is then recorded in her own ‘bank book.’ The money is kept with the elected secretary of the group, and is available for to be ‘withdrawn’ when the woman is ready to use it. Along with the amount saved by each member, there is also an amount each person gives to the general account. This is used in case anyone in the group has an emergency and needs a loan, in essence, providing a security net for the members of the group. At each meeting, the SHG discusses the underlying reasons for poverty, their ability to overcome it, and members support each other in finding options for growth. It seems like a simple approach but it is incredibly powerful. In Banan, Amurtel has organized close to 1000 women into SHGs and the results are amazing.

At a recent meeting of about 300 of the women, the women spoke on the affect the groups have had on them personally and their families. One woman spoke of how after 6 months, she was able to take her savings and invest it into a vegetable stand. She went from saving 14 cents a week to 2 dollars a week, and now has 3 vegetable stands. Another spoke of how when her daughter recently died she was able to pay for a casket and her funeral. One woman shared how she has been able to buy shoes for her children so they can go to school. All the women spoke with strong emotion of the importance of the group- what a difference it has made to know they are not alone in their struggles, and of how much stronger they feel as women and their ability to demand change. Each woman motivates the others to keep moving forward, and collectively they have brought some much needed changes to their community. One example they shared with how difficult it was to find a market for their goods. They would have to cross the border and sell in the DR, which was a long and demoralizing trip. After discussing it amongst themselves they went to the mayor and petitioned to have a market started in their own town.

The Self Help Program is scheduled to continue for another year. After that Amurtel hopes to have the women themselves take over program and continue to expand it.