When Salamatou Dagnogo was penniless and hundreds of miles away from her five children, she knew she had to think on her feet if she wanted to be reunited with them.
Salamatou was stranded in Niger after her abusive husband put her on a bus, knowing she would not have enough money to return to Côte d’Ivoire.
In Niger, she joined a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA), a co-op that allows women to be their own bankers. Founded by CARE in 1991, VSLAs are groups of approximately 20 women who each save a little bit of money every day. Over time, the women use the group savings to give small loans to each other so they can invest in businesses, agriculture, or their children’s educations. This allows the women to earn a profit, so they can repay the loan with interest. After a year, the group members share the money, returning every woman’s initial investment, plus interest.
women in Côte d'Ivoire participate in CARE savings groups
After 18 months, Salamatou used her earnings to purchase a bus ticket back to Côte d’Ivoire where she was reunited with her children.
Knowing the difference that this savings group made to her life, she began thinking about bringing this model to women in her own country.
Not quite sure how to start, Salamatou approached her friend Fati Abdou who she suspected would be in support of the idea. A community educator at the CARE Côte d’Ivoire office, Fati was keen to hear of any ideas that would benefit vulnerable women.
Salamatou explained all she had learned from CARE in Niger about how savings groups work. At the time, Fati’s health work mostly focused on running HIV programs. Although this was outside her usual realm, the two knew this model had potential to serve countless women.
Together, they made a formidable pair: Salamatou with her determination for a better life for all women, and Fati with her skills in organizing communities and teaching new ideas.
“I used nights and weekends with Salamatou to start groups and prove that savings changed more than just women’s income,” Fati says. “We knew we could do more.”
Gradually, more women were convinced to join the savings groups. Salamatou founded 150 groups herself.
The duo didn’t stop there. When she saw what those groups of women could accomplish, Fati worked to change CARE. She convinced her boss and colleagues to adopt a new idea. She built a team who saw that for women like Salamatou, savings is about so much more than money. It’s about health, dignity, and hope. It’s about escaping an abusive marriage — like Salamatou eventually did — and building a future for your children.
Salamatou, who was married at age 13 and had five children by age 20 with an abusive husband, was determined to do what was necessary to build a better life, and she knew that saving and investing was key in achieving that.
VSLAs were started by Salamatou
“People who knew me before — they now see the difference in my life,” Salamatou says. “But it’s not me alone. My story is the same for a lot of women. We help ourselves, and we change our situation.”
“Over time, the impact of VSLAs stretches far beyond economic and financial empowerment,” says Michelle Nunn, President and CEO, CARE USA. “As groups achieve one goal — helping one another start small enterprises or pay for school fees – they set their sights on other, often more ambitious goals such as buying land, running for political office or fighting for gender equality in their communities.”
Between them, Salamatou and Fati have helped more than 260,000 women across Côte d’Ivoire start saving and begin to build futures. Today, there are nearly 7.6 million women across 51 countries who are CARE VSLA members. By 2030, that number is estimated to reach 50 million.
Fati is currently in Atlanta teaching CARE staff how savings groups can work to support women in the U.S.
Women help ourselves, and we change our situation.
The rapid global spread of COVID-19 and its associated challenges are activating VSLAs in nontraditional ways to respond in a crisis dominated by mass panic and miscommunication. As many VSLA groups are rural and remote, members may not have access to information from mainstream media sources.
The groups have proven instrumental as trusted networks for disseminating information during emergencies like Ebola outbreaks and now during the current COVID-19 pandemic. In Niger, leaders in VSLAs are sending voice notes over Whatsapp about the virus to five other members of the savings group, who then forward the message about the virus to five more contacts, over and over, creating a chain mail effect to share accurate information about the outbreak.
Ely Keita, the Country Director of CARE Niger, explains that VSLA groups used their collective savings to purchase items such as food, soap, and handwashing kits in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“At the start of the confinement and with limited access to markets, some of the groups purchased [essentials] to distribute to their members to ease the impact of the confinement on their households.”
For years to come, women across the world will continue to benefit from the impact of Salamatou and Fati’s determination to support other women to find safety and financial independence.