VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Change begins with conversation
April 23, 2012 by Jane Yang
|The IRC has been working with community organizers to hold village meetings to encourage men and women to talk about the importance of setting goals collectively, as a family. Photo: Jane Yang/IRC|
“Close your eyes,” says Elizabeth, addressing the women gathered for the meeting in the local community hall. They do so, some emitting soft murmurs of laughter in response to the seemingly childish request. “I want you to imagine yourself living successfully. What does that look like?”
Instead, they are living in big houses surrounded by shade trees and blooming orchids. They drive stylish cars. They run their own international businesses and invest their profits in rental properties.
Elizabeth, a community organizer, reminds the women that dreams are not fleeting images that disappear when we open our eyes; dreams are aspirations to strive toward every day.
The women begin to envision themselves tending large productive farms with livestock. The few men who have attended the meeting, most of them standing at the rear of the room, are coaxed into revealing their fantasies—operating their own garages or spare-parts shops. Couples speak about visiting their children at university and spending holidays abroad.
Elizabeth gently coaxes the group back to reality—the dusty floor and crooked wooden poles of the community hall. The drudgery of daily life, of hand-to-mouth existence in Huruma, returns. But everyone understands the point of Elizabeth’s exercise.
The women gathered here have formed their own village savings and loans association (VSLA), aptly named the Hope Group. Since its inception in October 2011, the Hope Group has saved KES 46,700 ($584) while granting KES 52,500 ($656) in much-need loans to its members.
In Kenya and neighboring countries, matters of money are typically considered the man’s province, leaving women with little control over household resources and limited decision-making power. In an effort to address cultural inequities that affect economic growth, the IRC has been working with community organizers like Elizabeth to hold village meetings not only to encourage members of VSLAs, who tend to be women, but also to reach out to their spouses to talk about the importance of setting goals collectively, as a family.
“What are these factors?” Elizabeth challenges her audience.
“A family-based support network,” ventures one woman.
“Having savings,” adds another.
Then one woman boldly addresses the proverbial elephant in the room. “Both spouses establishing a household budget together and sticking to it,” she says firmly. The women in the room nod vigorously in confirmation. The men do not protest.
With the ice broken, the ideas flow faster than Elizabeth can write on the white board she’s using for the meeting. “Sharing ideas,” she writes. “Reducing unnecessary spending (less alcohol for the men). Investing in the family business for growth.”
During today’s session, the women have dominated the discussion. The few men who linger in the back speak only when prodded. But they are present, and they are talking.
In the larger scheme of things, this is very promising. The paradigm shift from a male-controlled household to equitable decision-making will not happen overnight. Bringing wives and husbands together in a neutral setting to confront issues of money management and planning is a huge first step. Change begins with a conversation.
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