Microfinance at the margins: Understanding women’s financial capabilities in South Kivu, DRC

Renee Bullock and Bonaventure Munzunghirwa IITA-Bukavu

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), women’s opportunities to gain skills in enterprise development and participate in formal savings opportunities are severely limited. The high rates of gender-based violence (GBV) further marginalize women from gaining access to microfinance that included training, group discussions, and personal counseling to improve entrepreneurial knowledge, skills, and attitude to support positive behavioral changes in household financial decisions. We worked with both women and men.

Irongo Women’s group following discussions on how to better manage household budgets and business activities. Photo by IITA.

Targeting women in skills training alone has proved to be an inadequate approach to supporting women’s empowerment. Although women often engage in business and savings, commonly accepted norms and intra-household relations with spouses constrain women’s decision-making about how to spend money and husbands may assume control over their spouse’s income. Clearly, this undermines efforts to improve gender equality and development outcomes overall.

This project was jointly designed with Mamas for Africa, an NGO that supports women and girls in eastern DRC in their fight against violence, poverty, and inequality. Through this initiative, we facilitate access to microfinance services for women who have experienced GBV; increase women’s ability in the household to support gender equitable household outcomes in managing finances; and support collective action mechanisms to increase solidarity and improve savings activities.

The project is currently in two rural locations in Walungu territory that have differing levels of market access. Irongo is a more rural location with weak market access, while Mushinga has better access to weekly markets. Thirty women who sought medical attention in the last 2 years were purposefully selected to participate. Qualitative and quantitative research methods were used. Focus group discussions and in-depth personal interviews were used to better understand the local context, including gender norms related to finances. Then a household baseline survey was conducted with husbands and wives, where applicable, to understand intra-household financial and business management and attitudes about gender-specific roles and better assess how women participants would manage income and savings in their households.

Twenty-six women from two villages opted to participate in the project; their ages ranged from 28 to 65; 67% of them are illiterate. Fourteen of the women are married, and seven are widows. The remaining women independently manage households while their husbands migrate in search of work, often in mines and potentially for years at a time. A 5-day intervention that included training and individual counseling was carried out with women and men to build women’s financial capabilities.

Financial and negotiation skills were provided to build women and men’s capacity and to change behaviors so women gain greater support from male household members in their enterprise and savings activities. Gender dialogue groups were used to discuss decision making and planning of a household budget and sharing labor in household tasks, for example. Each woman then received US$30 as startup capital following training on allocating and developing a budget to meet household needs, invest in a micro-enterprise of their choice, and to save. Women then created a plan with support from an economic counselor on how to use this money.

Since the project began, women formed two groups and engage in diverse enterprises such as selling rice, beans, flour, and banana. They established a link to formal banking services and opened group accounts in the nearby banking cooperative. For half of the women, this is their first experience having their own savings account; only 27% of the beneficiary households received credit in the last 2 years. Each group in Irongo (12 members) and Mushinga (14 members) met once a week with a local facilitator, and saved and discussed their successes and challenges, recorded by the facilitator and shared to support a better understanding of microfinance challenges and opportunities.

The figure compares the savings performance of both groups: initial savings, savings from November through March, and the total savings. Both groups saved similarly in the initial round, $112 and $129, respectively. Savings amounts decreased from December through February. Explanations for the decreases were household shocks and emergencies, e.g., hospital fees. In Irongo, the group also faced challenges to secure a weekly meeting place, so did not manage to save in January and February. However, in March both groups were able to set aside savings. To date, Mushinga has saved a total of $468 and Irongo, $229.

A cause and concern for the discrepancy is Irongo’s weak market access. Mushinga is close to two weekly markets and many members sell products in these markets. The Irongo group is currently developing plans to work more collectively with each other so that they may save more frequently. In general, married members often save higher amounts and save more frequently than widows and women whose husbands have migrated.

In the baseline survey, we measured agreement with statements about autonomous and joint financial management, among others. Women often strongly agreed with statements that supported men’s autonomy in managing money. They also said that women must share income with their spouse. In other words, men generally have authority on managing income, while women do not, reflecting unequal, gender-based differences in financial independence. The impact assessment showed significant decreased levels of agreement with such statements. Women were less supportive of men’s autonomy and the necessity to share with their husbands, for instance. Such changes in attitudes are essential to change financial behaviors in the household. If women do not personally believe they have the right to manage finances independently, they will not.

Qualitative data also indicated changes in household management. Occasionally, women actively protested their husbands’ requests to use money for alcohol. Rather, women put the money into savings as they had planned. In addition, women reported significant changes in their levels of satisfaction in managing expenses and increased skill in managing business. Women reported that they are also in a better position after the intervention to pay school and medical fees, and to purchase food. Such changes are critical to garnering sustainable change in the lives of these women and their families.

This project has provided key insights to guide future gender transformative research. Among these lessons is the need to use relational and intersectional approaches to understand the local social context. It is imperative to work with and engage men, especially in the household, to address and improve women’s financial capabilities. Women’s circumstances are diverse and dynamic; their experiences vary based on their household structure, effective networks, and life stage, for instance. This project showed that training of both men and women using financial capabilities approaches has supported significant changes and improvements in women’s ability to exercise their ability to make choices or important finance-related decisions in the household. An integrated, gendered approach to microfinance will better support the potential to enhance women’s entrepreneurship, savings, and gender equity in the agriculture sector.

Community women celebrating their successes on the processing center. Photo by IITA.

Posted on November 2, 2018 in Ensuring Impact and Delivery

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