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SWAZILAND: Fighting Gender Violence With Financial Freedom

Mantoe Phakathi

MBABANE, Dec 8 2008 (IPS) - When a Swazi women's rights organisation noticed that many women continue to stay in violent relationships because they are financially dependent on their abusive partners, they knew something had to change. They started self-help groups that assist women in breaking away from gender-based violence (GBV) by gaining financial muscle.

Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) helps women to start up and run small businesses in and around the country's commercial hub of Manzini. The organisation teaches them about bookkeeping, financial and business management, customer care and public speaking.

As a result, about 500 women in 47 groups in and around Manzini, who used to be trapped in abusive relationships, have gained financial – and personal – independence.

"Many poor Swazi women are vulnerable to domestic abuse because of their financial dependency on their husbands and boyfriends. Our self-help groups give them the financial base they need to leave abusive relationships," explained Swagaa project officer Dazi Dlamini.

She said apart from mitigating financial constraints, the groups address social issues around GBV and women's rights: "The self-help groups are not only looking at the economic development of women. We also try to address issues, such as domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, in our weekly meetings."

Financial independence

After setting up their businesses, the women pay part of their earnings into a mutual savings and credit fund aimed at helping them to grow their enterprises. From contributions as small as 20 cents per week, 500 women in the Manzini region have generated close to $15,000 in just more than one year, Dlamini said.

Members can borrow between $5 and $50 per month at a ten percent interest rate from this fund, if they want to expand their businesses.

"We borrow from our savings to buy more stock, for example, and this is how we have been able to grow our enterprises since last year," explained Mamane Sukati (54), a member of the association in Mpembekati, three kilometres outside of Manzini.

"We borrow for business purposes only. Unless it's a very critical matter, members can only use the money to put it back into their enterprises, but not to fix personal problems," she added.

Apart from each member paying $0.2 per week into the savings account, the women make a monthly contribution of $2 towards a separate fund set up to help pay their children's school fees. They contribute a further $0.2 a month towards a funeral scheme for members and their families.

As a next step to generating returns on investment, SWAGAA plans to form a number of Cluster Level Associations (CLAs), which will be made up of 15 self-help groups per community. Each CLA will pay $30 a month into yet another savings account, which will earn extra interest on profits generated.

The self-help groups are set up in a non-hierarchical manner, with rotating chairpersons, to ensure that all women are treated equally within the association, said Dlamini: "We don't have an executive committee because everyone is supposed to participate fully and in the same way. We encourage each woman to stand up and speak, which is a way of cultivating self- esteem."

Building self-esteem

Esther Mashaba (54), a self-help group member, says chairing a meeting was difficult at first but now she has become used to public speaking. "Each one of us is given a chance to moderate so that we can help one another to gain confidence in dealing with our own business," she told IPS.

Mashaba says joining the group has helped her to improve her relationship with her husband, a carpenter, with whom she used to fight over lack of basic resources in the household. "My husband did not give me enough money to buy food for the family, yet he would still demand a savoury dinner every time he comes home in the evening. That led to arguments or fights," she said.

But after joining the self-help group and earning money, her family situation started to change. "I guess the financial independence has made my husband realise the effort I'm making in providing for the family," said Mashaba. "He now gives me a lot of support and respect."

She said she received a lot of advice and counselling from other members of the group who advised her to speak with her husband about domestic violence and report him to the police if he continued beating her.

"When I came here, I was full of anger, but after opening up to the members about my problems I felt a lot better because they counselled me," she added.

Peggy Matola (61), another self-help group member, says she cannot imagine how she would have coped without the support of her colleagues when two of her children died within a space of ten days. Besides emotional support from the other women, she benefited from the funeral fund, without which, she says, her family would have struggled to pay for the burial service.

As a next step towards ending GBV, SWAGAA is planning to include men in its workshops on social issues that may have an impact on gender-based and domestic violence, such as poverty, food insecurity, HIV/AIDS and gender discrimination.

"Our goal is to sensitise entire communities about issues of gender-based violence and abuse. We want to reach out to everyone," said Dlamini.

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