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Together We Save: How Savings Groups Invest in Women AN ESCOMIAD PROJECT STORY

In 2014, the Aga Khan Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a Global Development Alliance entitled Economic and Social Connections: A Multi-Input Area Development Financing Facility for Tajikistan (ESCoMIAD). Since then, ESCoMIAD has improved lives for people living along the Tajik border with Afghanistan. The story below illustrates how ESCoMIAD invests in women and their communities through locally driven savings groups.

For people living in poor, remote areas, access to formal financial institutions to borrow or save money is considered a luxury. Yet families in these regions still need small amounts of savings and credit to help fill gaps in irregular incomes, make investments, and plan for emergencies.

Along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, community-based savings groups (CBSGs) are helping transform local economies by providing access to these crucial financial services. Groups typically convene around 20 community members on a bi-weekly basis to pool their own funds for use to save and borrow. Since their introduction in Tajikistan by the Aga Khan Foundation in 2009, CBSGs have had an impressive impact—providing communities with critical financial skills while working to reduce poverty.

A LOCAL APPROACH

Established in 2015, the savings group in Ganj, a village in the Khatlon region of Tajikistan, boasts 40 members—35 of them female. Today, they are in their fourth cycle of activity, having blossomed from a small group of only 17 members. The group has accumulated over $4,000 in savings, with the value of loans increasing significantly over the last year. The progress has given many members the confidence to explore small business ventures, speak up more in the home, and put trust in the savings group model. Most of all, members—the majority of them housewives—appreciate the supportive network that the group has created.

“Before, when we were not meeting as a group, we didn’t discuss our ideas,” one member says. “But now, we have a unique place where we can talk to each other about ideas, about starting our own businesses. Our heart is warm—knowing that we have support and savings here.”

Members describe the groups as a network of people who look out for one another, helping each other cover emergency costs and other pressing needs. For one member, that need was to provide for her son’s education: “I have a son who is studying at the university, and just to pay for his study, I needed a loan. I did not go to any of my relatives to ask for cash. I did not go to the bank… I just came here and addressed my problem with our group, and we solved it and I took a loan. And after 3 months, I paid it back.”

Savings groups build strong trust among the community. One member puts it simply: “We couldn’t do this without trust.” The ability of the groups to create this trusting atmosphere is in its accountability framework.

Accountability is built into the structure of how the group collects and stores funds. Shares and dues collected from all members—including a “social fund” that provides for emergencies—are kept in a lockbox. Three group officers (leader, treasurer, and secretary) are given keys to the lockbox. All three keys are needed to open it.

Together with discussions about local priorities, savings groups create a spirit of trust within the community and a platform for economic empowerment.

Overcoming Financial Barriers for Women

Women in Tajikistan face barriers to economic opportunities, especially in rural areas. Savings groups address this by improving members’ financial literacy and access to—and control over—financial resources.

Like in other villages, female residents of Guliston, also in Khatlon, found that formal financial institutions like banks were often unable to address the needs of their households due to high interest rates, long wait times, and limited access. Therefore, the community established a savings group comprised almost entirely of women—with only a single male member.

The training that members received under ESCoMIAD’s support covered topics like financial management and record-keeping. For many of the women, they were learning how to use credit and manage a budget and for the first time.

“This CBSG has equipped us with the knowledge and the practice to manage cash in our households,” says one of the group’s members. “I have a private small shop. Nowadays, I know how to effectively manage the cash to keep it running— how much to save for this and for that.”

Another member says: “Before I joined the savings group, I kept cash around the house. I would put it under the bed, and sometimes I’d forget where I put the money. I did not manage my cash in a proper way. But now, after several trainings conducted for the CBSG, I know how to manage cash—how to plan for it and prioritize the expenses of our household.”

As a result of the savings groups, members feel empowered to manage household funds and contribute to community conversations. With each meeting, they are beginning to view themselves as valuable contributors at home and within the community.

Investing in a better future

By investing in community-based institutions like savings groups, ESCoMIAD is helping create a cycle of growth and development—expanding social and financial opportunities for women in Tajikistan.

Today, over 3,000 women across Khatlon are members of community-based savings groups supported by ESCoMIAD—marking 80% of total members. Now equipped with access to resources and basic financial management skills, these women are establishing lifelong habits that will improve their well-being and protect their families from financial risk and economic hardship.

In 2019, 300 new savings groups will be established in Khatlon through the Thrive project, a 5-year development alliance between AKF and USAID that will build on much of ESCoMIAD’s success. This will ensure that more women in these rural areas participate in economic activities and gain decision-making power in their households, communities, and beyond.

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