Empowering Women Through VSLAs in Cambodia

Empowering Women Through VSLAs in Cambodia

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Ms. Seam Mak, 39-year-old, was born in Prang village, Koh Kong province and currently, she has living in Kompong Sdam village, Chrouy Svay commune, Sre Ambel district, Koh Kong province when she got married.

Her father passed away when she was just a baby, Mak has 9 siblings plus her mother, total, 10 members in the family. The family depended on the money her mother and older siblings could earn fishing, but this only just provided enough for them to eat and there was never any money for her to go to school. Instead, from a young age, Mak contributed to the family’s income by transplanting rice, which barely earned her a dollar a day.

Her income continued to rely on fishing when she married a fisherman when at 19 years-old and she has 4 children, 2 girls and 2 boys. She said with sadness that “Nowadays, I just have 3 children because my elder son drowned when he was just 10 years old.”

The loss of her child had a devastating effect on her family life – as she dealt with her grief, she also endured abuse from her husband, who then abandoned her. Mak says, “When my first child passed away my husband was broken-hearted, he always beating me and the children. My teeth are broken because he beat me. Moreover, he did not go to earn money to support the family and he left home for many months.”

Left to support her family alone just has her mother had been, Mak and her daughter tried to earn money by repairing fishing nets, but despite working long hours she was unable to earn more than $5 a day and her income was very irregular. “The money I earned was not enough to support my family; sometimes, I did not have money to buy food, and I could not afford to send all my children to school, even cooking room I did not have money to build. I decided to sell my property, including our fishing boat, to support my family,” she told CARE. Mak also borrowed money from a Micro Finance Institution (MFI) and middleman in her village, but very high interest rates made repaying this loan difficult and she often had to choose between repaying her debts or feeding her children.

It was at this point in her life that Mak encountered the VSLA project. CARE’s VSLAs are community-based savings groups, where members purchase shares in the group and are also able to take out loans with lower interest rates than other middlemen and easy to access loan than MFI. Involvement with the VSLA has not only improved her financial circumstances, but has completely changed Mak’s outlook on life and allowed her to afford a better future for her children.

During the first round of savings, Mak borrowed from the group twice: once to buy school materials for her children and another time to buy rice and groceries for her family. But it was not just loans that she has gained from her participation. As part of the VSLA project, Mak received training from CARE in leadership, group policies development, savings and credit activities, also including detailed knowledge of the shares and loans system. In addition, she continued to join with CARE to improve her knowledge and skills by attending training on twelve key family health practices.

Joining with other women in the community gave Mak greater confidence herself and made her much more motivated. “I always attend the saving group every week,” says Mak. “I want to know about the amount money I have saved and I feel very happy when I count my share.” She has become an active member of her community and continues to encourage others to become members of the group.

Mak’s newfound knowledge enabled her to stand up to her husband when he returned. “After I saved money for months with my neighbors, my husband came back home and he wants me to stop being part of the group. He reprimanded me, saying ‘Why do you need the group keep your money, I do not want you join this group.” Mak’s ability to remonstrate with him when she was being criticised shows how continued involvement with the VSLA empowers women to have a voice within their families and stand up for their opinions.

Her husband quickly changed his attitude towards the VSLA when Mak received her first share out after nine months, gaining over $100. He was so happy with her return that when she decided to use part of the money to buy pigs to raise, he supported her by helping to build a pigpen. Now she has started a small pig-raising business at home, Mak no longer has to worry about having to go fishing at sea and feels she has started a new chapter in her life.

With this new respect and encouragement from her husband, Mak is hopeful about the future and is now looking to improve the prospects of her children. “In the second saving round, I will borrow some money from group as I want to buy a bicycle for my son to ride to school and to buy more pig to raise” she says. “My family is trying to earn money to save in the group because when I receive the payout for my shares, I want to buy a motorcycle for my daughter to ride to school. At the moment, she travels with her friend so she does not study regularly. We do not have enough money yet, but I will try to earn more as I do not want her to be illiterate like me.” In addition, Mak speaks of her fear of the sea when they were out on the boat for long periods of time: “My daughter and I went fishing with my husband at sea and we were often scared that a storm would come. Once, when we were fishing we were out in a storm with very heavy rain, cried and held each other because we were so afraid. At the time, I was terrified that my daughter would drown.” She added “I do not want my children go to fishing at the sea like me when they grow up, I want them to have high knowledge to be feed their life in the future.”

She continued "I would like to thanks CARE to provided a chance for me to join in saving group to saved me and my children from fishery life on the sea with dangerously, no in-debt with MFI or middleman, nowadays, I can push my family to live with improvement.”

Mak is grateful for the fact that the VSLA project enabled her to move away from depending on the earnings or loans from others and find her own way to provide for her family. With her own business and the new-found confidence in her skills, she feels able to fight the poverty that had such an impact on her early years. Her goal is now to ensure that her children have access to opportunities that she could never afford before, allowing them to continue to improve their future prospects.