By Kathryn Kraft
I’ve only been in Darfur for a month, but I have already met dozens of hard-working, energetic women who are full of smiles. Many are housewives, cleaners, and mothers with babe-in-arms, but that’s only what they do in their free time. They also work on farms, study, and sell products in the markets. It’s amazing to consider, really, as I meet women who do all this, but still find time to maintain intricate henna designs on their forearms, and keep up with Syrian soap operas if they have TVs and keep up with local gossip if they don’t.
All of these women, as well as millions of other women now living in camps for displaced people or isolated rural villages with dried-up fields, have been affected by the past 7 years of intense conflict in Darfur. They have worked hard to keep their families fed and their children in school, even when the fighting and violence seemed to come from all sides. CRS has consistently stood in solidarity with citizens throughout the state of West Darfur, providing life-saving aid including food, shelter, water and education. But now we want to do more to help them restore some consistency and even start dreaming about the future again. The vision of our new community education and peacebuilding program in West Darfur is to work with local residents to encourage communities as they move beyond daily survival and start to rebuild their stability, relationships, and vision for long-term development.
So a member of my team and I have come to the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, where CRS has been implementing the Khartoum IDP women empowerment project by helping displaced women form Savings and Internal Lending Communities (SILC) for several years.* The premise of SILC is simple: people form groups and all members of the group contribute a small sum of cash to a common pot on a regular basis. As the pot grows, the group can loan money to members, for example if there’s a family emergency or if someone has an idea for a small business venture. Using good financial principles, the savings remain intact and even grow, and are eventually returned to each member of the group. It’s actually not a new concept for women in Darfur, who have been running informal community savings groups for years, but SILC adds clear financial management education including the concept of making investments in project, and also a strong team-building component that can help restore and strengthen relationships.
The team here in Khartoum has told us some great stories of how SILC groups have provided confidence and financial support to some of the most vulnerable women in this city, and have also broken down tribal barriers in the process. The neighborhoods where they are implementing SILC are often comprised of various tribal groups from different parts of the country, sometimes groups with a lot of bad blood between them, but the SILC groups have brought women from these different groups together in a spirit of trust and cooperation. The Khartoum team has also explained to us about how much investment is needed in relationship-building before earning the support of community leaders for women’s savings groups, and about the difficulties they often experience in trying to teach simple skills like counting money or selling their handiwork for a profit, to women who had no previous experience making money on their own.
My colleague who traveled with me to Khartoum has worked with CRS in West Darfur for 6 years and is convinced that SILC will be a perfect fit for women in that region. It’s been exciting to see the smile on her face grow bigger and bigger during each day of our Khartoum visit. She knows many women who already work but don’t know how to save, and who have some degree of self-confidence but even bigger dreams for what they want to see in life. Khartoum is very different from the small towns in Darfur where CRS works, and her mind seems to be racing with ideas about culturally-appropriate adaptations for SILC in West Darfur. We want to make sure that women will not only understand the ideas, but will embrace their SILC groups as their own.
Though we are preparing to face the challenges, they don’t seem daunting, and we know that the rewards will be worth it. We’re going back to Darfur with a plan and a picture of what we hope to see soon: women meeting regularly with groups of friends, saving their cash and seeing its value grow, standing together in support of a Darfur that moves beyond conflict and into prosperity.
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