By a HUMNEWS Correspondent in East Africa
(HN, July 15, 2011) - It doesn't look like much at first glance, but the small tin cash box holds in it a lot of promise and dreams for about 30 girls gathered today in a suburb of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.
Not surprisingly, custodians of the box protect it with all they have. Not only does it help funds dreams through small loans, it also helps out members of the Ishaka solidarity group in times of crisis, perhaps to fund funeral expenses.
Little wonder then that the group’s savings are kept in a locked box that has three padlocks, held by three different girls.
This group of girls belong to Ishaka - a project to socially and economically empower girls, aged 14-22 in the two main urban areas of Burundi.
Many of their stories bear painful similarities. Young girls who loose their parents or care givers, or are thrown out onto the streets after becoming pregnant at a young age. They try to fend for themselves, end up having to beg for money or engage as sex workers, become pregnant and can no longer fend for themselves.
Even in relatively normal household environments in Burundi, domestic violence is widespread, says CARE Burundi Country Director Michelle Carter. It is believed that decades of civil unrest has created an environment for domestic violence to thrive. In addition, the unrest and scourge of HIV and AIDS has left behind many orphans.
To make matters worse, discriminatory laws and a patriarchal system make young women more susceptible to early marriage, sexual exploitation and early pregnancy.
Many girls find Ishaka at the depths of utter despair. The solidarity group not only helps boost their self confidence, it extends micro-loans for approved projects and educates the girls on life skills such as how to protect themselves against sexually-transmitted diseases.
Ishaka provides financial support so that the girls will not be forced to beg for money from boys and others. The loans are small - as little as $33 dollars, even less sometimes - but enough for the girls to start small businesses. One girl sold enough beer to purchase a rabbit that would be rented out for breeding. That eventually generated enough income for a goat and some pigs, and then school fees. Another borrowed just eight dollars to start an egg business, which eventually propelled her back to school.
Every participant is expected to make a deposit at each meeting: in this case 80% is dedicated towards a savings and loan fund and 20% towards social causes, or a rainy-day fund. At the beginning of each meeting, the savings are carefully counted - in such silence one could hear a pin drop.
"If not for Ishaka I wouldn't be where I am," said one graduate, who has opened up a small farm. "I'm no longer dependent on boys."
Christine, another participant who is a single mother of two, used her first loan to buy and sell corn. Within five months she paid back the loan, used her profits to build a small home and even ended up with some savings. "I put the past behind me and replaced it with dignity," she said.
The mechanics are elegantly simple: a group is self-selected and self-managed, with between 10-30 members. All members must meet and save on a regular basis. Decisions are made collectively, and subtle peer pressure helps ensure compliance.
A solar-powered and wind-up radios play an integral part of this initiative, by allowing groups to listen to financial literacy and life skills broadcasts.
When asked what skills they would like to pick-up, the girls said they are keen to learn soap-making as it could be easily sold in their community for income.
The Ishaka project has been supported by the Nike Foundation, with funding totalling $2.58 million over three-and-a-half years. More than 12,000 girls have benefited so far, with another 8,000 still to take advantage.
Many participants discover Ishaka by word of mouth, or from CARE staff during visits to various neighbourhoods. In early phases CARE staff provide intensive monitoring, but gradually blend into the background to allow the girls to lead themselves.
One of the wonderful aspects of the project, Carter said, is that it is easily replicable, designed to be scaled-up when necessary. Infrastructure and overhead is kept to a minimum.
To be sure, the graduates, or successful businesswomen, serve as superb role models for the younger participants.
At a recent meeting in June, one 22-year-old gave a passionate lecture on the scourge of HIV and AIDS, and quizzed her younger colleagues on how to protect themselves.
Afterwards, old and young embraced each other and erupted into a spontaneous celebration of song and dance.