Empowering futures through microfinance
Nestled in a lush landscape, the city of Bobo-Dioulasso is located in the south-west of Burkina Faso. Similar to much of western Africa, the people here are known for their great ethnic and religious tolerance and the city’s tree-lined streets bustle with the sounds of different languages and dialects. When the sisters arrived in 2011 to establish the Congregation’s first mission in the country, they were warmly received – and have continued to feel welcome ever since.
Bobo-Dioulasso is the county’s second-largest city but is often referred to as its economic and commercial capital; the city thrives with the types of small businesses that drive the country’s economy. However, located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the three founding sisters soon began to receive women at the door asking for food. These women, many of whom were illiterate, were trapped within their traditional roles and struggled to find employment. Some were widows or had been abandoned by their husbands, and the Muslim women were often just one of many of their husband’s wives whom he struggled to support. Troubled and challenged by the extreme poverty they witnessed, the sisters entered into dialogue with the women to explore ways to raise them out of poverty and become self-reliant.
Some of the women explained that they were unable to access existing loan options to develop their small business ideas because they had no savings and nothing to offer as collateral. The sisters identified that by creating a microcredit financing scheme, these would-be micro-entrepreneurs could develop income-generating activities and become economically empowered. By 2012, funded by donations from external benefactors, the Women’s Economic Empowerment Microcredit Financing Scheme was established, and the sisters began to work with an initial group of eight women.
Now in its ninth year, 50 women currently receive loans through the scheme. Each woman has been supported to identify the business activity best suited to her skill set and future aspirations. On this, Sr Hilaria Puthirrikkal, one of the community’s founding missionaries, says: “every woman is able to do something, working together with her, we discover that she is never lost, that there is always hope!”
In addition to the start-up loan, the women receive ongoing training and accompaniment from sisters – both professed and in formation – and lay mission partners to improve, develop, and sustain their business activities. As time goes on, the women can access increased amounts of aid to expand their businesses further. Through the project, women have now successfully established a range of micro-business ventures, which allow them to earn enough money to repay their monthly installment, provide for their families and send their children to school. The women’s business activities include selling fruit, vegetables, cereals, dry wood, charcoal, clothes, shoes, craftwork, sandwiches, and cakes. Some have their own premises, such as a restaurant or dressmaker’s shop, and even now employ other women.
One of the women supported by the project said: “I didn’t go to school, what could I do? This was the question I always asked myself. But thanks to the microcredit [scheme], my nightmares are over. I’ve been able to make some of my dreams come true. It has enabled me to develop my business venture. I’m no longer an employee but a manager of my own small business”.
Yet this project has not merely been about the economic empowerment of women. The project has incorporated an array of political and socio-cultural empowerment strategies that have involved education and training being delivered by lawyers, psychologists, and health and medical professionals. During these workshops, the women have been able to discuss and tackle some of society’s taboo subjects for them, such as forced and early marriage, abortion, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and HIV and AIDS. They have further been educated to learn ways to better care for and look after themselves and their families through attending workshops on human rights, family law, conflict management, health, and hygiene, etc.
This is a project that has not just raised women from poverty. It has also raised their consciousness in terms of political and socio-cultural issues. These holistically empowered women have gained new self-confidence and a better perspective on life. They are breaking down the walls of the vast gender inequality in Burkina Faso and playing their role in driving its economy forward. Their lives have been transformed, and they are now also in a position to be able to challenge and transform some of their society’s most taboo subjects.
An article by Liam Michael Quinn