Mauricette Mongbo
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA

Abreviations used:
FCFA : Franc of the African Financial Community (Franc de la Communaute Financiere de l'Afrique)
PAASF : Programme d'Appui a l'Association des Femmes.
PADEB = Programme d'Appui au Development a la Base

At sub-urban Cotonou (Rep. of Benin), more than 2,000 lower-income women are members of a set of 15 savings & credit groups, called "Banques des Femmes". In March 1996, the savings were 10,200,000 FCFA (US$20,400). 1,200 loans amounting 23,000,000 FCFA (US$46,000) have been given to the members, with a rate of reimbursement of about 99%. The system started in January 1992 with only 15 women. It is a member-run system, now supervised by a sectorial development program called PAASF.

Chart of the Institutional Organization


The General Assembly: elects and controls all the other organs.
The Board Of Controlers: controls both the Trustees and the Accountant.
The Board of Trustees: manages the banks daily, and follows up the accountancy.

PAASF, a program created from PADEB, collaborates with the women at every level of the bank's institutional organization. Originally, the main objective of the women was economic. However, the social returns are probably bigger than the economic ones. The following is an explanation of the social and economic advantages, and how possible it is to reach social objectives through economic projects.


  • After 4 years of life, by March 1996, 1,200 small businesses of low-income women have been financed, with a total of 23,000,000 FCFA (US$46,000). The credit decision is made by the Board of Trustees (See chart).
  • Poor women have easier access to reasonable credit for their activities. Furthermore, getting such a credit instead of purchasing products at credit is advantageous since the purchase for credit could cost the double of a cash purchase. Indeed, before we develop the banks, and besides the "Sou" (a traditional financial scheme), poor people could get credit from the usury system at a rate varying between 20% and 50% a month. Even the access to this expensive system was difficult because of the numerous requirements of the practitioners.
    In the banks, the monthly interest rate varies between 2% and 2.5%. The short cycle of their businesses makes that rate applicable.
  • The system permitted them to overcome some of the insufficiencies of the traditional financial system ("Sou"), such as the access to one's savings. In fact, in contrast to the traditional system, they can withdraw money from their savings when they need it, during the working days of the bank. The deposit also is more liberalized than within the "Sou", although the liberalization of deposit (amount and frequencies) could have both advantages and disadvantages.
  • Owing to the procedure of credit allocation, members analyze more the economic impacts of their activities. Consequently, they become more careful when choosing an economic activity. Unfortunately, they seem to pay less attention to that economic analysis, now.
  • Each bank employs a member as cashier and accountant. After, a voluntary period, in general about 10 months, this person begins getting a certain amount of money deducted from the bank's profit.
  • By the middle of the year 1992, 5 to 6 months after starting the first bank, the women began a program of adult literacy. Being in charge of that program, I developed it so that the courses are taught by 12 members previously trained. Those 12 members of the banks are presently earning an important part of their livelihood from the teaching.


Adult Literacy
Apart from the returns the literacy program is having on the living standards of more than 350 participants, -such as easier access to diverse informations, and easier management of activities-, the key subgroup of alphabetizors is also increasing its potential to access further sources of revenue.

Gain of Freedom
There are certainly a lot of indicators. Here, I will explain how, owing to those financial grassroots organizations, women are increasingly becoming able to manage their time and their own human resources.

At the beginning of the system, almost all the members had to run home after merely 2 hours of discussion/work. "Our husband will be angry. We must cook for them. We must go now, or we will not be able to come here again. They will refuse to let us come again, and if we insist we may be obliged to join our parents", they used to say. Nonetheless, the participation progressively and consistently increased in terms of duration and quality. In March'1994 it has become possible that they stay working for their banks during a full day, and then many such days consecutively. It was the start of that ongoing change. By mid-1994, 12 women chosen by the existing 10 banks (at that time) moved outside of Cotonou for their training in the context of adult literacy program. Then, they stayed twice for a full week, with the agreement of their husbands, whereas in 1992 that could not be even foreseen.

Although in mid-1994 the alphabetizors were unable to follow their training at once (during 2 weeks), in October 1995 they were able to update their skills during a 2-week section outside of Cotonou, without interruption. The alphabetizors also go from one neighborhood to another teaching adult women.

In November 1994, some of these women and other peasants women went for more than one week to Dakar (Senegal) where they and we gave a series of lectures on "Donner la parole aux populations de la base" within the framework of the fifth African Regional Conference on Women. They sent a delegation to Beijing'1995 as well.

Other Changes in Gender-relationship.
In contrast to what used to happen, the following situations have been observed concerning the women participating either in the banks, or in the adult literacy program, or both:
  • The most active women in the group can go out without their husbands' authorization.
  • They decide for themselves and for groups of women.
  • The literacy program initiated a change in the status of illiterate woman within the household:
    • she becomes able to answer the telephone, and able to read so that she has more access to information capable to influence her life.
    • She is able to leave (written) messages to her husband and go out, instead of waiting until he returns home.
    • Even the fact that she can hold pen/pencil, write, and read fluently is a source of dignity, and ameliorates her image vis-a-vis her husband, and her environment.
  • Some men began helping their wives with housework, even if they did not use to do so. The increasing amount of time spent by their wives in community activities is playing a significant role in such shift.
  • It was difficult to understand that food be bought when there are all ingredients: woman should cook. However, the present occupations of some women holding key-roles in the associations (e.g. alphabetizors, accounts, administrators) are causing the contrary.
  • Some women said that owing to a decrease in the time they spend at home, disputes between them and their husbands have significantly decreased.
  • There are new subjects of discussion between spouses. Moreover, woman introduces the topics, and has more knowledge on the subjects than the man. Therefore, it creates a context of a more egalitarian debate led by the wife.
  • The women participate more effectively and more proudly in other social events and activities of their community. They have been consulted about community planning.

Although, the above mainly indicate the advantages that women gain, the changes may increase their charges. In fact, some women explain how their financial responsibilities increase when their husbands notice they are involved in lucrative activities.

In conclusion, the social returns seem greater, and would be the ones to lead to economic improvements, as in the case of the literacy program. Consequently, we could principally find in this experience, the potentials of a savings & credit scheme to lead to positive social returns, which in turn could yield economic improvements.


The groups started after three months of meetings between the technical assistants of PADEB and an unsteady health care service attending group of low-income women. Being a technical assistant of program, I was directly involved in the development of strategies to improving women's quality of life. From the statements and explanations they gave on their daily lives, problems and alternatives, I retained the following: "The businesses are dangerously sinking. The main problem is the lack of money. Our husbands contribute too little if at all to the household needs, and the rising unemployment has worsened the situation... We're carrying too much burden, but all the problem is about money". Other problems like the roads, and the flooding of the neighborhood were raised, but they emphasized the financial needs for their economic activities, and said "with money you can do anything you want...". Instead of immediately satisfying that real need of capital or operating fund, we initiated with them a savings & credit system, after three months of difficult as well as enjoyable discussions. The fifteen women who persevered and founded the system, have formulated their goal as follow: "Mobilize financial resources to increase revenue, and contribute to the amelioration of the neighborhood".

Six months later, other women asking to replicate the system, told us they wanted to "liberalize women economically and socially from men's dominance, and prove that the poor are able to improve their quality of life".

For both groups and for the following ones, the objectives were to mobilize the scarce savings, fund their economic activities by the credits, and advise each other for a rational economic management.

Contact address:
Mauricette S. MONGBO
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA
Email: mongbo@BRANDEIS.BITNET or mongbo@binah.cc.brandeis.edu

Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org
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