Saving for independence: meet the Mafraq savings group and their struggle for equality

“All my life has been a challenge. We have all been through difficult situations. We all want to feel financially independent. I never learnt how to save, but that has all changed since I joined this group.”

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Written by Emma Langbridge

We are a little late arriving at the community centre to meet with a group of Jordanian women who have set up a savings group together. These are busy women and some of them need to dash off to pick their children up from school. We walk up a precarious staircase and into the centre where we are welcomed by six of the ten members of the group.

The women take turns explaining the types of small businesses that they run: Rahmeh runs a small supermarket, another runs a beauty salon at home, some produce woollen goods and straw and bead handicrafts.

These women have been supported by CARE to set up a ‘Village Savings and Loans Association’ (VSLA) - an informal savings group which enables them to save together so that they can invest small sums into their businesses. CARE provides them with basic financial training and a lockbox with three keys. The women select their own leaders, who then take charge of the three separate keys and the collection and distribution of funds. 

The VSLA has only been up and running for a few months and they have already collectively saved 648 JOD (914 USD) - enough for two women to take out loans. One has taken out a loan of 50 JOD (70 USD) to support her small handicrafts business, which she proudly explains she has already paid back. Another has taken out a similar loan for her sewing business and she has just paid back the first instalment. The VSLA has a flexible approach so the women can save what they can afford, which means the amount that each woman contributes per month can vary from 1 to 20 JOD. The amount that they can borrow is then calculated by how much they have saved.

Na’ameh, aged 48 comments: “All my life has been a challenge. We have all been through difficult situations. We all want to feel financially independent. I never learnt how to save, but that has all changed since I joined this group.”

42 year old Rahmeh agrees: “We enjoy saving together – CARE has taught us how to save and being in this group has given each of us a goal to save towards. It really gives us a good feeling that we can take out a loan without interest.”

The VSLA has not only taught the women new financial skills but it has also strengthened the women socially. Na’ameh adds: “We meet twice a month and have built strong social relationships. We have even decided to meet more regularly at each other’s houses so we can share traditional food together.”

When we ask the women what are the greatest challenges facing Jordanian women Rahmeh answers without hesitation: “Men!” There is a man from the community centre listening in to our conversation and she turns to him and tells him to close his ears. She continues: “All men in Jordanian society refuse the idea of a working woman and allowing her to move freely from A to B. If men allowed women to work they would see how productive we can be. It’s ironic that our husbands don’t mind us running a small business from home creating products. But when it comes to marketing those products outside the house, we can’t. When I wanted to open my supermarket my husband was against it but I told him: ‘you aren’t giving me any money and I need it! Either you give me money or I’ll set up the business.’ So I set up the business. We are still married after nearly 30 years!”

As our meeting comes to a close the women talk about their aspirations for their daughters. Rahmeh explains: “We wish to give our daughters a proper education and hope that they don’t have to experience difficulties like we did, where men are the priority. In our society women do not have a proper status and we want that to change.”

Women from the Mafraq VSLA waving goodbye

The women wave goodbye after the VSLA meeting, photo: CARE Nederland

It is clear that these women have great inner strength and determination and, with the support from the VSLA, they can gain greater financial independence. We all leave together and the women, dressed head to toe in black, wave us away as they rush back to their busy lives.

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