Women coming together to build community
West 'Are'Are, Malaita, Solomon Islands is approximately 10 hours travel by boat and truck from the provincial capital of Auki. The West 'Are'Are Rokotanikeni Association (WARA) provides access to savings services, small loans and financial literacy training including household budgeting, managing finances and basic bookkeeping.
From barter to cash
Traditionally, rural Solomon Islanders did not need to depend on money because the environment satisfied most of their needs, including water, food, bush medicines and building and craft materials. Society was built around an expectation that people would assist other community members through barter and mutual assistance systems. Today people need cash for expenses such as school fees, medical bills or travel to find work or attend funerals.
As a result, rural Solomon Islanders are being drawn into a cash economy. This has led men into growing cash crops or harvesting forests and women into selling excess produce from their garden, or from fishing, at the market. Women also cook fish and chips or 'ring cakes' (like doughnuts) to sell at the market, and some women in larger communities cater for functions in the church or community. Other women might sell betel nuts and cigarettes in small roadside stalls or weave, sew or crochet items.
Microfinance in rural Solomon Islands
There are no formal banking services available in rural areas of Solomon Islands and there are high fees for simple banking transactions. It is often hard for women to reach banks because they are busy caring for children and elders, cooking, tending the vegetable garden and selling excess produce. They may also need the permission of their male family members to travel.
Literacy and numeracy levels in rural Solomon Islands are very low so understanding finances, banking and saving is also a problem, particularly for women who have lower literacy and numeracy rates than men.
Gender inequality also reduces women's ability to manage their finances. Men are often seen as the head of the household, so they are responsible for making decisions about finances. This can mean that some men feel they have the right to take and spend money earned by their wives or other female family members. If a woman wants to save money she might resort to hiding it in or around the house. This can put them in danger as their husband or other male family members may use violence to coerce them into revealing where the money is hidden.
Women's savings clubs
Women's savings clubs are one way to provide women with a safe place to save money. There are many different models, but usually a group of women agree to start a savings club. The money is kept in a strong box with several locks on it, and all the keys are held by different members of the club. That way if a woman, or her husband, wants to withdraw money she needs to seek the permission of several different people first. This is a way that both women and their money can be kept safe.
The clubs meet regularly to share skills that might be used for starting a small business and learn about saving and managing money. Women elect leaders who keep records of how much each woman deposits into the strong box. Members might borrow money for large-cost items and repay the group with an agreed amount of interest. Several times a year the volunteer staff of WARA, who are based in Honiara, travel to Malaita to collect cash deposits to be taken back to the bank in Honiara. The staff also answer any questions or concerns the women may have.
One of the leaders of WARA, Alice Pollard, says that financial literacy is just one aspect of the program. As women meet to share ideas and take more control of their finances, they also feel more confident to express their ideas in community meetings. It doesn't happen quickly, though.
There is no shortcut or quick fix in changing culture – like a school of fish in the sea, we have to swim together, talk together and work together, only then can we make the positive changes that we want to see.
In rural areas, less than 5% of the population has access to electricity. Households are dependent on expensive kerosene-powered lamps for lighting. These provide light for only a limited area so people find it difficult to do much once it is dark.
Recently, over 200 members of WARA decided to use the money they had saved to purchase solar panels that were being offered at a subsidised price through the Ministry of Rural Infrastructure. Solar panels will provide lighting, making the community safer, and assist people to study at night. They will also power radios, television, computers and telephones, improving communication with people outside their village.
The solar panels will also provide power for other electrical devices such as televisions, radios and mobile phone chargers, which will assist people to access important information and communicate with each other. In the future, there will be phone banking services to enable people to make direct payments.
Planting seeds for children to reap
The savings club is living up to its name rokotanikeni, 'a group of women coming to build together'. They not only provide opportunities for women to save money in this remote area, but they are also building their individual leadership skills and confidence and establishing a network of women determined to bring positive change to their communities. Future generations will certainly reap the rewards.
International Women's Development Agency – Stories of change
Australian Aid – Putting communities back into development