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Self-help groups empower women

Women in Kenya are finding that there’s strength in numbers: if they pool their resources together in self-help groups of their own creation, they can radically change their lives and the lives of their families and communities.
Eric Maino

The air is filled with singing and laughter as 20 members of the Nzoia Muungano Self-Help Group return from the fields of western Kenya. They have just weeded group member Anne Sikolia’s one-and-a-half acre maize plantation in Nzoia village, Lugari district.

Tomorrow, the group plans to build a two-roomed mud hut for Veronica Sichangi a widow with four children.

As the adage goes, sticks tied together cannot be easily broken. Perhaps this is what Kenyan women have in mind as they form cooperative groups all across the country to deal with social and economic problems that particularly engulf the rural areas.

One such group is Nzoia Muungano, which started in the mid 1990s and enables its members to progress economically and socially. Twenty-four-year-old Sikolia, a mother of three, is among thousands of women who have benefited from groups such as Nzoia Muungano

"It would have been quite a strenuous task for me,” explains Sikolia. “I would have taken a whole month weeding this piece but now look, it has been done in a day!"

Sikolia is unemployed. Her husband moved to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, five years ago in search of employment, and has never returned. Neither does he send any money, which leaves the family in poverty. "We only managed a meal a day, put on tattered clothes, and lived in dilapidated conditions like refugees," she reveals sadly.

However, she continues to say that since joining the group two years ago, a lot has changed.

She points to a hut that she and her colleagues built, house utensils that group members purchased for her through a revolving fund, and farm inputs that were bought by funds collected from members.

"Before this, I loathed having visitors, and nobody could after all visit a pauper,” she says. “I felt a social outcast but, now, I feel proud welcoming visitors in the compound.” In December, during the harvesting season, the group members will assist her to harvest the crop, she says.

Hellen Chepkorir has many reasons to smile. The 27-year-old mother of five lives a better life than she did five years ago. Chepkorir has managed to send three children to school, feed and dress them, and pay house rent, courtesy of the flourishing charcoal trade of which she is wholesaler at Chukura market in Uasin-Gishu district.

Chepkorir belongs to Chukura Women’s Group, which is comprised of small-scale businesswomen. Women in the association contribute Ksh500 (US$6.50) each week; the collection revolves from member to member on a weekly basis.

Chepkorir, like many other married women, used to sit and wait for her husband to fend for the family so that they could eat. Sometimes, her husband could not get anything for up to two days, which meant that family members went to bed without food.

"Then some women approached me to start a self-help group, where we could contribute 100 shillings [US$1.30] to a member to enable her to start a business,” she narrates. “I bought the idea straight away."

At first, she started a vegetable grocery shop with Ksh500 shillings (US$6.50), since the group consisted of only five members. Profits accruing from the group helped her to buy food and meet other financial requirements.

More members joined until they became 12 members. Each member then contributed a weekly sum of Ksh500. Eventually, Chepkorir was able to get a loan of Ksh6,000 (US$78) to start a charcoal business. Today, as a wholesaler, she sells her commodities to retailers.

"It would be difficult, a dream, to raise Sh6000 at once,” says Chepkorir. “But this has enabled me to progress; it is like getting a loan at interest free whose terms are soft.”

Chepkorir says that since her business started doing well, family wrangles have ceased. "I could bitterly quarrel with my husband, accusing him of neglecting the family since he provided very little,” she reveals. “At one time, the marriage was threatening to break, but today, I can supplement his earnings and we live an amicable life."

Forming and joining a self-help group varies from locality to locality. The principle requirement is for a member to know the group’s objective, then to be able to pay a membership fee ranging from Ksh200 (US$2.60) to 500 (US$6.50), depending on the economic base of the members.

Women’s groups are well organised. They have annual elections for leadership posts such as chairperson, treasurer, and secretary. There are by-laws and constitutions that govern most of these groups, to see to it that members stick to the group’s objectives.

"Some laws are tough,” explains Lydia Wamboi, chairperson of Kongoni Women’s Self-reliance Group in Lugari district. For example, if one defaults on her payment without an explanation, she can be penalised or even expelled from the group, says Wamboi.

"Most groups you see around don’t have offices or assets,” says Wamboi, a mother of six who separated from her husband following family wrangles over poverty. “We operate and meet in members’ houses. It is after visiting a member that we can even learn of the problems affecting a colleague."

Wamboi says that discussions during meetings are wide-ranging. "We exchange ideas on our rights, nutrition, child bearing, and discuss among ourselves about the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We converse about the virtue of fidelity and sometimes family planning measures."

These groups have intensified good relationships amongst members, who often view themselves more or less like sisters. "And now we command respect in the community, and even from our husbands," chips in Sylvia Nyongesa.

Nyongesa, a single mother of two, says she has benefited a lot from her group. "One remarkable thing was when we contributed money and I bought a dairy cow. Today, I am able to sell milk, while I reserve some for my two children. Their health has improved a great deal, and I can be able to buy food and clothing from the proceeds. In a month I have a total earning of Sh3000 [US$39], which is far too much from what others are getting in this rural area," she says.

"Women realised, too, that they have energy and skills to improve their lifestyle,” points out Wamboi. “They fetch firewood and water, operate kitchen gardening, cook, wash, and perform other domestic chores that are equally laborious, but hardly earned from it.”

When they first formed these self-help groups, women faced many obstacles, chief among them objections from husbands. At first, married women could be stopped from attending meetings from husbands who accused them of infidelity. Some dropped out of the associations following mounting pressure at home, but those who continued are now being admired.

Ironically, those men who were adamant against their wives joining these groups are enjoying the proceeds from these groups. In some households where men are drunkards, and can’t support the family, it is common to have women assuming the role of breadwinner.

In some places such as Lugari district, the groups are so powerful that they can easily shape the opinion of society. In most cases, during election years, politicians use women groups to gain votes.

Following outstanding successes, the phenomenon of women’s self-help groups has compelled many women to form associations. It is the order of the day to belong to a women’s group. Weekly contributions and visits are known as merry-go-rounds, as they revolve from one member to another.

The bottom line of every group is to have each member live a better life, where she feels loved and cared for, hence pulling many from lives of solitaire anguish and despair.

Upon learning the importance of social groups, the government has started to encourage women to register their groups with the Ministry of Home Affairs. In Lugari district, there are 3,050 registered groups so far, says district development officer John Kianda.

Kianda further discloses that most of them are very active. He is optimistic that, with some external assistance, the groups can achieve a lot.

Moreover, Kianda is extremely pleased that the groups have become a forum for discussion and the exchange of ideas, which has been lacking for so long. Registering a group he says, costs Ksh300 (US$3.90), and the certificate is renewed every year.

A local community development assistant (CDA) is posted in every village to facilitate the groups into places for discussions and ideas.

Prof. Authur Okwemba of Moi University School of Social Sciences describes the movement as “original,” with the purpose of improving living standards. He adds that, if given financial assistance, most of them can progress well.

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