Self-Help Groups: Preventing exploitation by empowering Ugandan women

Hope for Justice has identified during its work helping vulnerable and exploited children that extremely poor communities in rural Uganda have needs that go beyond the purely financial. To tackle this, our team in Uganda is trialling a holistic solution that increases the communities’ autonomy and agency, without the risk of fostering a dependency culture or a ‘crutch’.

The trial began in the villages of Wakiso District where a selection process identified the most vulnerable households – generally the poorest. The women of these households were afraid to speak up in public, had extremely low socio-economic status and typically had very limited access to income. They were prime candidates to join our Self-Help Groups.

The women were invited and encouraged to join one of these weekly groups, each of which comprises about 20 members, typically from the same village. The women bring what money they can, to save regularly. The money is kept communally and purposes for its use discussed weekly, including loans to members. At the same time, the members gain confidence by speaking up about issues that concern them. The leadership rotates every week. The Hope for Justice team are a constant supporting force at the meetings, particularly where a group is new or struggling.

The Self-Help Groups are part of a larger structure, with the next level up being the Cluster Level Association. Every 10 Self-Help Groups has two representatives at the Association meetings, which are very useful for discussing issues affecting multiple groups. Each Association also visits its constituent groups, especially those needing guidance.

The project’s success in Wakiso District has encouraged our team to seek to expand it further, because the members’ economic prospects have improved so noticeably. They are able to borrow from their groups, which can help them to start a business or to buy livestock as an investment. The savings might let them keep their children in school.

The groups have also been a success socially, as members of the groups now often serve in leadership positions at local institutions and organisations, both secular and religious. In fact, 14 members of the district’s Self-Help Groups were elected this year to serve on village councils, enabling them to serve their communities in an official capacity, as well as their existing unofficial capacity. There was very strong support for their candidates among the other women of the groups, who know their own voices will also be amplified.