5 Minutes of Inspiration: How Savings Help Girls Stand Up for Themselves

5 Minutes of Inspiration: How Savings Help Girls Stand Up for Themselves


By Emily Janoch

Here’s a link I never thought about: Savings make it easier for teenage girls to refuse sex with boys if they don’t want it. Why? Because for many girls in Burundi, the only way to access cash is to get it as “presents” from a “boyfriend.” Now, with Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) money and their own businesses, girls feel self-reliant and more able to stand up for themselves.

It’s not just about saying no to boys. Girls stand up for what matters most to them. Fidella (pictured) overcame a difficult family situation to make sure she and her sisters could go to school.

Fidella’s success story is certainly one of perseverance and determination. As one of seven children, her mother was the lifeblood of the family — feeding the family, buying clothes, and paying for school. When Fidella’s mother passed away, she and her sisters were left to support the family, but they found it difficult to reconcile school with domestic work.

When the POWER project arrived in Fidella’s village, she joined right away and was selected as a village agent, responsible for training and mentoring fellow members on the VSLA approach. Within months, Fidella and her sisters began to enjoy life as children again — they were applying for loans and earning more profits, returned to school, and received lessons on domestic and gender-based violence, which awakened Fidella’s conscience regarding her father’s violent behavior.

“Thanks to the VSLA, I have now finished secondary school and earned my high school diploma. At school and at home, people could not understand how I managed to go back to school at my age, and this is why they nicknamed me ‘Perseverance.’

The POWER project ran in Burundi, Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ethiopia with $13 million from the MasterCard Foundation from 2013-2018. In Burundi, the project reached 127,082 people directly and 510,000 indirectly with $2.3 million. CARE partnered with Great Lakes Inkinga Development to implement this project.

"Today, I am respected by my neighbors, thanks to my perseverance and my economic power."


What have we accomplished?

  • Girls have more income: The most common change girls cited was having more income through their businesses and the ability to get loans. As a result, girls feel more self-reliant, and can pay their own school fees.
  • Girls are connected to banks: Girls often said that having a relationship with a bank was one of the biggest changes in their lives. It mattered so much that one girl has started to work with a local micro-finance institution to connect other people in her communities to banks, and to help make sure their loan repayments are on track.
  • ‘I can speak up for myself’: Girls felt that speaking up for themselves was one of the greatest gains in the project. They feel they have more respect from communities, can say no to unwanted sex, and that their parents have become less skeptical about what girls can do.
  • Girls can cope with crisis: Many girls said that they have more skills and tools to cope with crisis. The most common skill they mentioned was better conflict resolution, but they also talked about savings and diversified businesses.

How did we get there?

  • Listen to what girls need: POWER made several changes to the standard VSLA program based on what adolescent girls asked for. That included changing the schedule, so girls didn’t miss school, linking girls to banks quickly so their money is safer, and teaching time management skills.
  • Convince parents and teachers: Many parents and teachers mentioned that they were initially skeptical of the program. They didn’t think girls were capable of running businesses and worried it would make the girls drop out of school. Burundi did a study of the effects of running a small business on school performance. Once parents and teachers saw that it wasn’t hurting girls’ education, they were more willing to support. Working with Burundi’s Abatangamuco male champions and community leaders was a big support here.
  • Focus on community norms: The project had to confront the fact that many family members — especially brothers — feel they own a girl’s money because of strong local traditions. It was important to help girls overcome this barrier by hosting community conversations about norms, and helping boys start their own VSLAs.
  • Work through partners: The demand for VSLAs was so high — especially once they started creating VSLAs for boys — that the project staff couldn’t start them all alone. They worked with a Village Agent model to expand reach and scale of VSLAs.

Want to learn more?

Read the post-project evaluation here. Find out how CARE Action is supporting women’s economic empowerment and passing legislation in Congress on our campaign page here.

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