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Mothers’ Union literacy scheme in Burundi brings women out of poverty

08 June 2023

Taking Pictures, Changing Lives Foundation

A programme participant sells bananas at the local market

A programme participant sells bananas at the local market

A REPORT on a literacy and finance programme run by the Mothers’ Union in Burundi shows that women are leading the way in making economic changes which have transformed family life over the past 20 years.

The report, From a Silent Revolution to Building Communities of Hope: Harmony, human dignity and sustainable development, was published on Thursday. It presents the findings of a study of the long-term effects of the Mothers’ Union Burundi Literacy and Financial Education Programme.

The programme, which is delivered through the Anglican Church of Burundi, was launched in 2000 across three Anglican dioceses, to tackle poverty through literacy schemes. In 2010, through partnership with Five Talents (a Lambeth Conference scheme), savings-groups programmes were introduced, and the work was expanded to reach all nine dioceses in the country.

Based on surveys and independent research, the report says that, from 2001 to 2022, more than 144,000 people — almost 80 per cent of whom were women — had learned to read and write, and now have a formal literacy qualification, through the programme. This accounts for almost three per cent of the adult literate population in Burundi.

The research also found that, once literate, participants formed 6200 community-owned savings groups; half of these were formed as off-shoots, without direct support from the programme. Run by an elected chair, treasurer, and secretary, these groups are self-sustaining, raising their own loan capital through their collective savings, independent of any external loan funds. They also provide business skills training.

The savings groups, more than 80 per cent of which are still in operation, were introduced into Burundi in 2009, when Five Talents began working in partnership with the Mothers’ Union, building on its literacy and numeracy programme to help communities to mobilise their economic resources. The scheme gave people a safe place to save their money, besides offering training and support to set up and grow small businesses.

Taking Pictures, Changing Lives FoundationEmilienne, who is a member of a Burundi Savings Group, sells goods at the local market

The report found that almost all (90 per cent) of the women who took part in the savings groups went on to start a business, and 83 per cent have two or three businesses. Most of these women employ one or two people.

More than half the surveyed female programme participants have become elected leaders in their communities, churches, and savings groups, while 97 per cent of the married male programme participants said that they shared domestic work with their spouses. This freed up time for women’s self-development and income-generating activities, the report says.

In 2006, just 15 per cent of female participants owned productive assets, such as goats or pigs, a mobile phone, and land; this increased to almost all by 2022: most (91 per cent) were able to buy goats or pigs; 81 per cent were able to diversify their livelihoods and/or businesses; 71 per cent were able to buy a mobile phone; more than half (51 per cent) were able to buy land; and one third (33 per cent) were able to buy cattle.

The MU President for Rutana diocese, Eularie Ndayirore, said: “The savings and loans component added real value to the programme. . . It enabled many to engage in income generation. Women are building houses . . . some have installed solar lighting in their homes to enable their children to study at night. The women have been empowered. . . They have been lifted from the lowest to the highest.”

One member of a Burundi savings group, Emilienne, said: “I had no money at all. When I joined the group, I learned and realised that I had some resources of my own and could start saving from what I had.”

She started to buy small things to sell, including sugar and eggs, and used the profits to make larger assets, such as bread. “I started a business to sell bread and tea — I sold [these] early in the morning to children as they were going to school, so they did not have to go to school hungry.

“Later, I was able to save money and buy a goat, which multiplied and produced more goats that I could sell. I had a problem with my eyes and could not see well. From my business profits, I was able to buy glasses, and I have also been able to pay for my three children’s weddings.”

Burundi is a low-income country where decades of socio-political instability have weakened the economy. Climate-related shocks and global crises have further hampered development efforts. The report states that more than three-quarters of the population live in multidimensional poverty and that those most affected are women and children.

The report says that the literacy and finance programme has led more girls to attending school, with the parents involved being more likely to invest in their children’s education and healthcare needs. It also showed a reduction in domestic violence. Almost all male participants of the programme were against gender-based violence.

One couple, Deo and Verdiane, joined the programme in 2005. When they were first married, Deo believed that his wife had no value, the MU reports: she had no say in family decisions and was not allowed to earn, and he beat her regularly. Their lives were transformed when they joined an MU literacy circle. Deo began to value Verdiane as a partner, and to respect her. With their new literacy skills, the couple started a small business, which has lifted them out of poverty.

Deo said: “When we joined the literacy circle, our family life changed. . . I discovered that women have many talents and skills, that they can make wise decisions. . . . Our family is happy. We are now literate and can do business without being cheated at the market. I want to encourage my wife to stand for the next election as a leader of our community.”

The provincial coordinator for MU Burundi, Claudette Kigeme, has been involved in the programme since its inception. When it started, she said, “it was an inclusive programme made for community members, aiming at the empowerment of the most vulnerable, especially women. . .

“No one would have thought it would produce the life changing impact and spiritual empowerment that we are seeing today.”

Taking Pictures, Changing Lives FoundationDeo and Verdiane, who joined the programme in 2005, with their four children

The report also says that the programme of literacy and finance transformed the participants’ faith and improved women’s participation in church. “Besides reading the Bible, they can also sing from hymn books. All participants said that they feel loved by God and see God as a worker in their lives.”

Five Talents, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, was set up at the 1998 Lambeth Conference as a practical means of combating poverty. It works in partnership with the Anglican churches in rural areas of East and Central Africa.

The co-chief executive of Five Talents UK, Rachel Lindley, said that the report showed how sustainable development might look in response to climate change, food shortages, economic insecurity, and conflicts. “At its heart, this report is a celebration not of what we are doing, but of what happens when people come together to use their own talents and resources to shape their own futures.”

The chief executive of the MU, Bev Jullien, said: “We are immensely proud to share this report which highlights the impact of 20 years working with our colleagues in Burundi. Participants have learnt about their rights, they are registering their children’s births and can vote, things that we take for granted, which they didn’t have access to before. This is a brilliant example of partnership working and impactful, community and Christian-led development.”

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