A few weeks ago I visited some projects our Together We Can Change the World foundation supports with SE Asian disadvantaged women and children in Myanmar (Burma). In addition to visiting several schools, we visited an inspirational group called Women for the World.
In their small village outside Yangon (formerly Rangoon) a group of 30 women started a savings club several years ago. Tiring of their inability to escape squalor on their husbands’ meager $5-$8/day earnings, they played the lottery as the only way they thought they could rise out of poverty. All of their money went to rent and food and they had nothing left over to save to invest in their own homes. The banks wouldn’t loan them money as they made too little.
The savings club idea was introduced to them by Lisa Aung from Partners Asia, with whom we work. Lisa arranged for us to meet with these women and hear their story.
Each week, each woman found a way to save a little bit from their husband’s pay. Or they may have done some work themselves that brought in some extra funds. They pooled their money, carefully tracking who’d contributed what on charts on a community room wall. Once they’d amassed enough, they began loaning it to their members for a small interest rate. After a few years, the group had saved $20,000USD.
Soon, they were loaning money so their members could buy specially designed homes for $600. Compared to others in the community, these were spacious as well as clean, with solid roofs and high enough off the ground to escape the annual floods.
Additionally, the group created community rules. These included that each family had to keep the grounds around their home neat and clean. They must recycle and dispose of their garbage. And the men were put on notice: If they came home drunk or hit their wives three times, they were banished from the village. With a first violation, all of the women visited him and reminded him of the rules. Same with the second time. And the third time they escorted him out of the village.
The women have grown personally, too. One leader was initially so shy she didn’t want her children to go to school because she didn’t want to have to meet with the teachers. Another of the group went with her the first time to the teacher meeting, and now she’s the group’s spokesperson.
I asked the women what their husbands think of the savings club, knowing that in some cultures men are threatened when their women are successful, and beat their wives. The women said their men love what their families have been able to achieve. They have cut their smoking in half if not all together, they drink less, feel better, have a much better place to live and their kids are doing better. They are proud of their wives and the village.
The women are inspirational. They’ve created whole new living situations when they had so little. Their children will also have different futures as a result of these women and their families. I’m excited to have met them and that we will continue to support them in new projects.