I just spent two days visiting Saving for Change groups in southern Mali. Saving for Change teaches women to save money and start small business ventures.
The women always have a look in their eyes that conveys real dignity and just a bit of fire as they describe their businesses, and how the money they earn is helping their families. Most can say their children have decent clothes and are in school, the family is eating better, and they are saving money.
Fanta Niambaly, 52, is president of one Saving for Change group in the village of Banakoro. She says the 29 women in her group are changing the way they see themselves and their place in the community. “We are proud of our businesses, and we are learning to become entrepreneurs,” she says, squinting in the sun.
In other villages women say they are now included in village councils and help make decisions on important matters like the maintenance of wells and new pumps. But are women sharing any decision-making power beyond their traditional roles of carrying water and caring for children? Do their husbands respect their opinions in family and village matters? Can they own property, be the mayor, or carry out other official duties?
I struggle with how to ask the right questions about this gender dimension, which may not translate well from French to Bambara (the local language), and then back to French. Being a strange foreign white guy probably does not help much either.
But you can get some clues if you listen carefully: Some women say they never used to be able to speak in public, and now they can—an important concept in a culture where young girls are taught that being outspoken may make it hard to find a husband.
I try to ask how women and their husbands make decisions in the home. Fanta Niambaly told me that since she became the president of her group, she and her husband “now exchange ideas before making decisions, and we share responsibility for them. Before, we had problems understanding each other.”
Another way to gauge the status of women in the community is to ask the men. But I worry that chiefs and other traditional leaders just tell me what they think I want to hear. This is why I was so surprised when one man named Douada Mariko, a Koranic teacher in the village of Doumba, approached me to express his admiration of the Saving for Change group.
Mariko said that other loan programs in the past encouraged women to take on unsustainable debt. He said Saving for Change has solved that problem, because “The women are working with their own money; they know where the money comes from.” Even better, he said that women “now have as much spirit as men, they are more creative, and they are even stronger than men.”
Religious leaders do not always encourage progressive roles for women in this part of the world, so his views give me hope.