Saving to save lives: How ‘susu’ empowered a woman to flee from violence
Two years ago, Yaa Ataa (not her real name) led a life of quiet despair at Bomaa, a farming community in eastern Ghana. Her husband would beat her if she did not cook his favourite meal and rain blows on her accusing her of infidelity if she came home late from visiting her ailing mother in the neighboring village.
Her relatives and neighbors often told her to walk away, but the 36-year-old mother of three felt trapped. She wondered where she would go, what she would live on and who would take care of her children if she left. Without her own source of livelihood, she was fully dependent on her husband of 12 years and, in spite of the abuse, she stayed because she had a roof over her head, food for her children and sometimes enough to share with her mother.
Moreover, her husband threatened to disown their children and stop taking care of her ailing mother if she left. She endured for the sake of the children.
Now, all that is behind her. Today, she stands on her own with her children and is free from abuse thanks to a village savings and loans group commonly referred to as susu.
Yaa joined the susu initiated by the Obasima Foundation in 2019 when the local Queen Mother selected her to join the project to empower needy women in the community.
Women in rural communities in Ghana engage in subsistence farming, providing labour for farms. They also do small-scale cassava and corn flour production and gari and palm oil processing and petty trading. They have no fixed salary and do not earn a living wage, making them vulnerable to economic violence at home.
Economic violence involves making or attempting to make a person financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding access to money and/or curtailing attendance at school or employment.
Yaa, was among 20 women who were trained in gari processing, soap making, beads making, and cassava processing into flour and chips. The women were put into four groups of five women each and given seed money of GH¢1,000, which they used to start their small businesses. They were trained to save from the profits and given six months to repay the loans.
The susu is led by five trustees, including the queen mother of the local community, who get basic training in bookkeeping and accounting to run group affairs. Each day, the women in the group contribute between GH¢1 to GH¢5, which is recorded in a ledger. Each member has a passbook to record contributions, loan disbursement and loan repayment.
After saving for three months, the women can borrow between GH¢1,000 and GH¢2,500 based on their contributions and needs. The women can use the money to expand their businesses or pay for school fees or other necessities. The loan attracts an interest rate of five per cent which is used to run the association. The susu provides access to credit, which the women would not normally have access to due to the stringent criteria for borrowers in the formal sector.
Members of the group meet twice a week, at a designated place, for forums on social issues, where they discuss gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health, housekeeping, parenting, bookkeeping and basic business management skills. After these discussions, they make their contributions and get loans.
Yaa joined the gari processing group, and after saving for six months, she qualified for a business expansion loan of GH¢1,500 with a repayment period of a year. With savings of GH¢800 from her business and loans from the group, she moved out of her husband’s house and rented a room for herself and her children.
“Now I am able to rent my own house and take care of my children. Through the susu, I can confidently take care of my needs and contribute to community development,” she said.
When she left her husband, he stopped meeting their children’s needs, so she pays for her daughters’ fees and hopes that completing school will prepare them to be economically independent.
Between 2016 and 2020, more than half a million (543,131) girls aged 15-19 years had teenage pregnancies, while 13,444 teenage pregnancies were in girls aged 10-14 years according to the Ghana Health Service District Health Information Management System (DHIMS). The latest census showed that teenage girls aged 15-19 years accounted for one in every 10 births (52,250 births) in 2021.
Obasima Founder, Ms Ama Frimpoma told GNA that many of these girls drop out of school, live in poverty and suffer abuse when they get married. Nana Kuma Asi, the Queen Mother of Boma said that some of the women depended on their partners for everything and girls often got pregnant and dropped out of school, fueling the vicious cycle.
This was the case for Yaa, who dropped out of school at age 15 due to pregnancy. She was forced to live with the 23-year-old man who impregnated her, even though that was child abuse because the legal age of marriage in Ghana is 18 years, while the age of consent is 16 years. The baby died two months after birth and she got her second child two years later, at age 17, and a third later. The abuse that started in her teen years, continued into adulthood until she joined the susu and raised enough money to escape.
Ms Frimpoma told GNA that these conditions – teenage pregnancy and child marriage – drive a vicious cycle of poverty, economic dependency, and gender-based violence.
“It is difficult for most of these young women to leave abusive relationships because they have nothing to live on. Most of them are school dropouts, having dropped out of school as a result of teenage pregnancy,” she said, adding that making women self-reliant is one of the ways of addressing gender-based violence.
By gaining skills the women begin to earn a living and become economically independent. Once the women become self-reliant, it has a ripple effect on keeping their own daughters in school and breaking the cycle of poverty that makes girls vulnerable to abuse. This improves the lives of women in rural areas.
“Most of our beneficiaries have daughters and once they are able to take care of them, we see a reduction in teenage pregnancy and school dropouts in their families,” she said
Yaa is now training two girls who dropped out of school and hopes that within a year, they will stand on their feet, establish their own businesses, and mentor others.
Yaa’s story lends credence to a UNICEF report that states that tackling violence in households requires social protection interventions to relieve the financial stress that drives intimate partner violence. The UN agency adds that women’s economic empowerment is an effective strategy for tackling gender-based violence in communities because it reduced the need for women and girls to rely on exploitative or transactional sex or marriage for economic security.
By Bertha Badu-Agyei
This article was produced as part of the WA GBV Reporting Fellowship with support from the African Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) through support of the Ford Foundation.