By vicsolbert | June 11, 2014 | 0 Comment
While in the field earlier this week, outside the city of Srimongol, I interviewed a group of 10 young women who had participated in a Literacy Training program run by the CREL project. The training program not only taught reading and writing, but also math skills, and applied them towards business and financial management. So while reading and writing alone is hugely empowering to these women who have never attended school and rarely leave their small village, the financial management skills are intended to promote entrepreneurship and increase their ability to participate in the marketplace. It was a very intensive course, meeting 6 days a week for 7 months, and they had just completed their last class the week before.
I was so impressed by the drive all of the women had! They were very excited to share with me their stories of how the training has impacted their lives. Many had begun tutoring their children or other women in their community in math and reading. Some said they had begun keeping track of the family accounts. One had revived a tailoring business she had started previously. She had decided to shut it down a few years before because she could not keep track of the orders and accounts, and so had difficulty making money. Now many of them were using their math skills to sell various products they made, including beautiful hand embroidered blankets, fans, pillow cases, and wall decorations. All of this they said greatly increased their own confidence in themselves, and their prestige in the community.
I was interested to hear that so far none had encountered any societal resistance. One woman said her husband had in fact encouraged her to participate because if she was educated she would be able to educate their children. (He may now be regretting his support as the same woman said she was also using her new skills to keep track of her husbands income and spending, ha!)
Most impressive was that they had taken inspiration from a story in their textbook to start their own savings and loan group. Not only had they set up and been running this savings and loan group for over 5 months completely on their own, with only this story and their new skills as a guide, they had recruited 30 other women from the community to join them. They called their group “Natuna ālō”, or “new light”. They have so far saved 10,500 taka (about $134). Though they had not yet issued a loan, one woman hoped to use a loan from the group to purchase more ducks to expand her egg production from near subsistence into a profitable business.
They were all very interested in participating in further trainings if they could, expressing interest in tailoring, duck rearing, improved agricultural practices for vegetable growing, and on managing their savings and loan group. While excited for any further opportunities to enhance their skills, one woman said that due to the literacy training program “we are now confident to improve our income and status even without additional training or resources from the project.”
I have heard of many development programs that focus on literacy skills for poor and marginalized communities, especially women, as a means of empowerment. I had rarely heard of programs which stressed financial management however, and this seemed to be a very important component that they immediately used in their daily lives to improve their status and livelihoods. It is interesting how much we take for granted simple skills like addition and subtraction, or even being able to write things down, and yet how many doorways they open up. How can you even begin to know how much to sell an item you made for if you cannot determine how much you spent to make it? If you sell multiple items on credit, how do you keep track of who owes you how much if you cannot write it down?
There were certainly areas of the program that could be improved. Despite being organized by the program into a handicrafts producer group and encourage to do more sewing and embroidery work, they had not been linked to markets where they could sell these products. The Literacy AND Financial Training model however is very compelling. I look forward to visiting with more women who have participated in the training in other communities next week and hearing their experiences.