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The "Amazons" of Côte d’Ivoire

Women in Côte d’Ivoire celebrate the end cycle of their Village Savings and Loan Association. Photo: Cheryl Djiro/CARE

Women in Côte d’Ivoire celebrate the end cycle of their Village Savings and Loan Association. Photo: Cheryl Djiro/CARE

The “Amazons” of the Kingdom of Dahomey were known for their bravery, their audacity, and their innovation. The 18th-century Amazons challenged archetypes, stimulated debates, revolutionized gender roles, and contributed to the advancement of women's rights. Like their ancestral sisters in Dahomey, the Amazons of Côte d'Ivoire are modern-day warriors.

Instead of using the implements of war to stake their claims, today’s Amazons of Côte d’Ivoire use financial tools. They are members of Village Savings & Loan Associations (VSLAs), who have decided to establish and expand these essential community financial resources throughout Côte d’Ivoire, empowering vulnerable and marginalized communities, particularly women.

I recently spent time with some of the Amazons in New York at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW68) where they talked with ministers and other government officials, civil-society organization leaders and funders about the impact of their work.

A woman from Cote d’ivoire at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Photo: CARE

In 2006, CARE began to set up VSLAs in areas of Côte d’Ivoire predominantly made up of rural women. Today, CARE is working with approximately 15,000 savings groups in the region, and this model has been replicated by other global nonprofits and state institutions, including Côte d’Ivoire’s Ministry of Solidarity and Poverty Eradication (aka “the Ministry”).

“It is urgent today to encourage local populations to join [these] groups in order to offer them greater opportunity to live with dignity,” said Myss Belmonde Dogo from the Ministry. “[VSLA] groups represent a culture of savings and the reinforcement of ties of solidarity for grassroots development.”

Camara Bassetou speaks to a group of women. Photo: Gildas Doba

Before joining forces as the Amazons, local women who were running VSLAs were working diligently but separately to set up groups in their communities. They were actively recruiting other women at community events, including weddings, when chatting together while cooking or preparing the bride, and when they started to find out about each other, they knew they had the potential to reach more women and came to CARE asking for support to formally bring them together.

We responded by organizing training sessions on the VSLA methodology. The groups also received training in advocacy, leadership, entrepreneurship, and financial inclusion. We then brought these women together with Regional Directors from the Ministry so that the work of the Amazons could be formally recognized.

Aisha Rahamatali was one of many prominent women who spent International Women's Day with CARE in Washington, DC, lobbying on behalf of women everywhere. Photographed in March 2024.

Because of that key partnership, the Amazons are contributing to the national effort to combat poverty. Working directly with the Ministry’s Regional Directors, they have developed a system of establishing, supervising, and mentoring savings groups. This encourages women and girls to invest in themselves and their futures.

45,000 members and counting

The Amazons’ approach allows for a deep understanding of local realities and norms, enabling them to better support VSLA members in their financial, social, and political activities. The Ministry has formally recognized their role as scaling partners and credible leaders within their communities, supporting social cohesion.

Since March 2022, 49 Amazons have created nearly 2,000 groups with over 45,000 members across the country. Their goal is to create 2,000 more groups by 2026.

Gladys Zado Gbehi from Abidjan has personally helped to establish more than 80 groups, creating a chain of solidarity and mutual support among women. She was one of the attendees at the CSW68 in New York. She described the cascading effect that VSLAs have on women and families.

“Through our savings groups I regularly see women changing their lives,” she said. “I see women who now have regular income from selling cakes and baked goods, fresh juices, or sandwiches. Women who can now send their child to school. Women who are no longer lonely because they are part of a group, and who have support from their savings group for clothes and food when they are going through a tough time.”

For the Ministry, the Amazons are a trusted way to directly reach and support communities throughout the country to help reduce poverty in rural communities.

In addition to establishing savings groups, they are actively working to reduce harmful practices, such as forced marriage and gender-based violence. They have clear operating methods to gain support in the local community to recognize the value of VSLAs, identify potential leaders, train them on VSLA best practices, and help spread the word throughout the region.

‘An ideal partner’

“The Amazons are an ideal partner for the Ministry because they completely understand their communities,” says Kouakou Olivier Michel Houango, the Ministry’s Regional Director for Abidjan. “They also have concrete operating methods to reduce the vulnerability of women and young people living in poverty. They are essential partners, and we cannot work without them. We must listen to the aspirations and dreams of women.”

“When I joined the savings group, I was selling fish, & eventually I opened a small restaurant. I now have three employees, too. With the money I make, I pay for school for my seven children"

Gladys Zado Gbehi

For the Amazons, being connected to the Ministry has opened doors t, helping them work more freely in communities. Their determination is palpable.

“Having the government as a partner is important for our legitimacy in the community, for our growth and our access to the market. But VSLAs are for us women., It is the way forward for our development and our fulfillment. We will continue to engage and support this work on our terms and needs.”

For the future, the Amazons tell us they have great ambitions. As well as continuing to highlight the capacities and leadership of women through VSLAs, they will continue to raise awareness amongst women and girls on the benefits of joining VSLAs, supporting CARE’s ambitions to significantly scale savings groups.

They also plan to expand their Amazons network and will recruit younger women to succeed them, as well as identify men as allies who can help scale the groups. They will continue to lead advocacy efforts around specific issues, such as eliminating forced marriage, influence institutions for increased access to markets for women, and support group negotiations with financial institutions.

Ultimately, they plan to create a network of Amazons connecting women from different regions of the country, increasing their capacity to trade with their sisters from Abidjan to Korhogo. Furthermore, the Amazons will also explore the idea of ​​creating a women’s bank, which will tailor products and services to the needs and realities of women.

Find out more about CARE’s workshop at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York: https://www.care.org/news-and-stories/resources/csw68-vslas-governments/

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