How self-help groups are transforming the lives of rural women in Kayonza

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The women tend to their farm. (All photos by Donah. Mbabazi)

She drowned in self-pity and lived in isolation. Years passed and things turned from bad to worse. This is the life 30-year-old Emima Dusabe’s endured when her marriage fell apart.

Dusabe’s husband abused her; he was a serial cheat and a drug addict.

“My husband used to beat me a lot and on top of that, he brought women to our house.  I tried to endure this thinking that maybe someday he will change but he didn’t,” Dusabe sadly narrates.

After years of depression, the mother of two learned of a cooperative, Abatuje. She joined the coop and her life has never been the same.

“It was a friend that introduced me to this cooperative. At first, all I wanted was to secure some finances for my family but later on, my social life was transformed too and I am glad about that,” she says.

It was through this group that Dusabe got the courage to face officials who helped her leave her abusive husband. She now owns a small business and takes care of her two children.

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Members hold prayers a head of their meetings. 

“Even getting Rwf1000 to take my child to the hospital before was a hustle, I could barely clothe or feed my kids and their father didn’t really care about us. Through the group, I saved and started to sell fruits, now I can take good care of my kids,” she says.

Dusabe is just one of the many women whose lives have been transformed through this group.

Supported by Tearfund, a non-governmental organisation that works with self-help groups in local communities to improve income generating activities, Abatuje is comprised of over twenty-two women, many of whom their lives rotated around farming with barely a single notion of how a business can be run, or even aware of their rights as women. They lived in naivety, but all this has changed thanks to this self-help group.

The NGO mobilises rural women to join community-led saving groups commonly known as ‘Self-Help Groups’ and provides them with skills, knowledge on saving principles, loan process and management, entrepreneurship development and leadership, with the aim of facilitating them to access financial services and participate in activities aimed at reducing household poverty.

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The women carry water for construction. 

Redacien Mukashyaka, the president of the group, says that they started the group in June 2015, but they had no idea this would change their lives forever.

“This initiative came at the right time; we actually needed this wakeup call because before, weeks, months and even years would pass without actually achieving anything productive,” she says.

The women believed in starting small, they started with savings of Rwf200 per week which they collected every Monday, the day they set aside for their weekly meeting. They later moved on to saving Rwf500, then Rwf700 and are now saving Rwf1000 per person per week.

Members have access to loans that can be paid off after three months with interest.

The members have managed to buy live stock for each household in the group; secured mituelle de santé (health insurance) too and recently saw themselves through the hard time that the dry season put them through by buying seeds worth Rwf20,000 for each member.

Through their modest savings, they have also managed to buy land and are now constructing a maize milling plant.

Mukashyaka applauds the initiative saying that the trainings they have received have helped them get out of poverty and that besides that, they now know their rights, the importance of issues such as hygiene and proper nutrition.

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Women at work during the construction of their maize milling plant.

“As time goes on, we feel like we are changing a lot, our minds are being opened to think beyond,” the 40-year-old says.

“That plant we are constructing is going to be a depot where traders from Rukara, Gahini,Kayonza and beyond will come to buy from. It is going to be our cash cow,” she adds.

It’s more than just a self-help group

Emmanuel Mparerwa, the village leader of Ryamanyoni in Kayonza, cheers the actions of this cooperative, saying that it not only benefits the members but also helps society at large.

“This initiative is one to be proud of and it’s appealing that our residents understand and value this as well. People coming together to help each other like this, is a huge step and I believe if our society continues with such efforts we will get far with development,” he says.

“People have actually changed their mindsets and are more conversant with business and more so their understanding of the various government programmes. Because of the importance of this initiative, I think it should be taken to other parts of the country,” Mparerwa adds.

Godfrey Gakwandi, the programme manager at Tearfund Rwanda, says that their choice to help rural women stems from the fact that these women were lagging behind in terms of financial inclusion yet the majority are living in extreme poverty in rural settings.

“Most importantly, we did this because if a woman gets out of poverty, the whole household benefits. Self-help groups also provide a safe space to share social life, including gender-based violence issues,” he says.

Gakwandi says that these groups have proved to be of great help depending on the achievements registered so far from the various groups.

He explains that the observed changes among the rural women in these groups are huge, for instance, over 18,309 from Ubudehe joined self-help groups, they are saving an average of Rwf500 per week, have opened bank accounts in SACCOs, their confidence to speak in public has been boosted, their children are in school, they pay health insurance on time, have reduced dependency on their husbands as they can meet most of their needs and are participating in off farm activities.

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Attending one of their meetings.

Beneficiaries commend the group

42-year-old Fortine Mukamwezi fled the country during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and only came back a few years ago; she had nothing to her name, be it land or a house to shelter her five children.

Starting from scratch, Mukamwezi managed to manoeuvre her way in life but joining the group led her to a life she only dreamed of.

“I didn’t have land but through this group I managed to get money to rent a piece of land for me to farm on. I had nothing but I am now somewhere because of this group. I can now manage to save some little money for emergencies and my children go to school,” she says.

Dativa Mukakarangwa, a mother of four, says that the life she is living now is evidence that indeed one can live a life they want mostly if they are determined to work for it.

Besides the money, she is also grateful for the way their social life has greatly improved.

“Before, we were farmers, toiling from sunrise to sunset without, this is all different now. We are becoming business women and it’s inspiring. We get time for each other as colleagues, even when one falls sick, we visit as a group,” Mukakarangwa says.

60-year-old Eunice Mukarwego feels inspired and young again because of the positive energy she is surrounded with from the young women she interacts with in the group. 

“It’s exciting that even at this age I can actually do something productive for myself. I am now in my sixties but I feel like a young woman for sure because I am always with young people. I always feel at peace in my heart and at home because I can afford a decent living,” Mukarwego says.

Ancille Nyiratsinda says that her life too has improved for the better since she joined the group. Being a single mother, it wasn’t easy supporting a household without an income to rely on but now with her little savings she is making ends meet.

How can the rural woman be empowered?

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Catarina Esperance

We need a mindset change for rural women because some women in rural areas live in poverty not because they are poor but because of the poor mindset. I was that kind of person who thought nothing would be possible for me because of the extreme poverty I lived in, I know I am not yet in the best position but I know I am heading there; other women need to experience this.

Catarina Esperance

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Mukamunana

I think they need more training so that they also develop like women in urban areas. Trainings on how to save, start a business and how to manage it can be of help. This way, they will be empowered economically and this will in turn solve other issues.

Nadine Mukamunana

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 Nyirabahizi

Women should endeavour to be a part of cooperatives because per my experience, those groups help a lot. The government on the other hand should help them with loans so that they get sponsorship for the ideas they have. This will boost their development.

Jeanette Nyirabahizi

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Mukarurangwa

Rural women deserve to be empowered because they go through a lot. Since most of them are illiterate, simple training on the basics in life can be very helpful, for instance, how to start a business, no matter how small. I am sure this can be very helpful in the long run.

Beatha Mukarurangwa