Gradual change in the status of women

By Chris Hufstader
Dalla Sissoko: "The entire village benefits from Saving for Change.

As more and more women participate in the Saving for Change program, there appear to be gradual changes in how women think about themselves and their place in their family and village.

Dalla Sissoko is watching this closely. Sissoko is one of the founders of the TONUS organization in Mali in 1995. This social service agency is now one of Oxfam America's partners in the Saving for Change program in Mali, and Sissoko is a micro-finance expert and head of the women's program at TONUS.

"We say that women are at the center of the Saving for Change program," Sissoko said on a rainy afternoon at the TONUS headquarters outside Bamako. "When we go to a village we have to speak with a chief or council, but after these initial meetings we are in contact only with the women. The women run the bank, keep the books, and run the meetings," she said.

It's no surprise that the women also enjoy the benefits of their Saving for Change group, Sissoko says. "We are seeing women have more money for buying things for the family and paying school fees. And many have extra money to buy things for their daughters when they get married, like a bed, and pots and pans."

Having more money to contribute to the family needs and expenses is a change in the role of women in the family. Men can see the benefits of the program, and their acceptance is important because participation in Saving for Change involves a time commitment from the busiest person in the family. "With Saving for Change women have two hours each week to talk among themselves, and they can have a break," Sissoko says, "They enjoy the company of their friends. It's really important to have this space. More and more, the men are allowing this time, and things are changing slowly. Many of the women are starting to wear better clothes, and the families are eating better. The health of children and their families are improving also, and men appreciate this."

But membership in a Saving for Change group goes beyond money and fellowship. "In most cases women do not get much information or training, but with the Saving for Change program they can get training among themselves," Sissoko says. TONUS trains women in managing their accounts, and in preventing and treating malaria, one of the most serious health threats in Mali.

And as with any organized group of knowledgeable people, Saving for Change group members look beyond their own personal concerns and advocate for ways to improve their community. In this case, groups propose ways to prevent malaria in the entire village. "They eventually start speaking in public," Sissoko says, ?and have opinions people respect."

Being involved in public affairs, and actually speaking your mind in public is simply out of the question for most village women in Mali. This is particularly the case in questions about public health, agriculture, access to water, and other crucial issues facing many villages. "Women are not really involved in development activities, these are dominated by men," Sissoko says. "Women just don?t make any of the decisions about development. They are not consulted and they are not heard. Women do not speak out in public. When they are young they are told that if they speak out they will never get a husband."

Minata Konaré, a 24-year-old mother of three and member of a Savings for Change group says that having the confidence to speak in public is one of the biggest changes for her, and it all started at her group meetings. "I never used to be able to speak in public, but now I can talk in public," Konaré says while passing by a friend's house on her way to work selling food in the village of Guily, near where she lives. "I used to always be at my house, but now I come to the village and talk with the other women, so this is opening things up for me."

The positive changes for women seen by Sissoko and others are being documented in a study carried out by Oxfam in late 2006. It looked at the progress being made in 20 villages in Mali, where researchers got numerous comments from women members of Saving for Change groups as well as their husbands and others in the communities. "Women are earning more money, and their new income enhances their status in their households," one researcher commented. "They are purchasing things they couldn't previously afford, they are contributing more to household expenses, and they report helping their husbands more."

Sissoko says women are creating ways for villages to better store their grains and other crops, eliminate mosquito breeding areas, and promote other positive changes they see helping everyone in the community. "Saving for Change helps women build confidence in their ability to do things," Sissoko says. "The entire village benefits from Saving for Change."