For want of a bar of soap

Mariam G., a member of a women's savings group in Sebenikoro, distributes soap to her group mates at a recent meeting.

“We have been meeting as a group and saving for small business needs for ten years,” says Mariam Traoré, the president of her savings group ‘Sigida Yiriwa Ton 1,’ which in English means ‘Association for Community Development.’ “Each member contributes CFA 100 [about 17¢] every week. Half of this amount goes into the small business box and the other half goes into the health savings box.” The group meets at Mariam’s house in Sebenikoro, on the front porch under a red tarp to protect the women from the hot sun as they meet.

Mariam T., group presidentSavings groups, or tontines, have been around for decades in many West African countries. It is a traditional way for women to form a collective that allows members to pool their money and share it fairly among themselves. It is popular and even essential in situations of economic uncertainty because this type of collective savings can provide financial and social security to group members.

Fatimata Nyere, the group’s facilitator from Mali Health, says, “Mali Health came to Sebenikoro in August of 2016.” She was tasked with approaching existing women’s groups in this community about making some of their savings available to use for health and sanitation needs that the group was facing, rather than just focusing on small business opportunities. “When I arrived,” Fatimata says, “the group asked me if I could teach them how to make soap.* I wasn’t able to do that, so I suggested that the group buy cases of soap to distribute to its members every two weeks. They could use funds from the health savings box to cover the cost.”

Mariam explains, “We need soap because we lack sanitation here in our community and there is a lot of sickness. Right now, there are mostly cases of malaria, but we also have colds and coughs.” Soap won’t stop malaria, but it can help stop the spread of diarrhea, pneumonia, and other respiratory infections that are prevalent in Sebenikoro and that can be life-threatening to young children whose immune systems are still developing. “Soap can be used to clean everything,” Mariam continues. “I clean my children, myself, the clothes, the dishes, and we even wash our hands with soap before we eat.”

The group has decided to buy cases of soap for about $14 every two weeks using the funds the women have contributed to their health savings box. Three bars of soap each are distributed to half of the women during the first part of the month, and the other half gets their soap during the next distribution in the second half of the month.

“Every member of our group is married, with children. We also use the money in the health savings box for doctor visits and medicine when our families get sick, including our husbands, because men and women are the same,” says Mariam. Her savings group is different from most; other groups in Mali Health’s program generally reserve their funds for use solely by group members and their children. In Sebenikoro and other communities around Bamako, family finances are retained and controlled by men, and women don’t typically have the ability to spend money without permission from their husbands. Mali Health’s savings groups are one way of promoting women’s agency and independence by giving them the freedom to spend the group’s savings on important items like soap or medicine without delay or permission.

“Mali Health helps us to share the cost of doctor visits and any medicine we need when our young children are sick,” Mariam says. “They even help some of us who have no money.”

She calls out to the group, “Let’s clap our hands for Mali Health and all the good work they are doing here, and hopefully the good work will stay for years to come!” On Mariam’s command, the group claps once, CLAP, then twice CLAP, CLAP, and finally three times, CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, and the group in unison shouts, “MALI HEALTH,” and they erupt into laughter and smiles.


* The women in our programs have repeatedly expressed an interest in learning new skills — like how to make soap — that they can use to raise their family’s income and self-sufficiency, which will help to further improve their access to primary healthcare. This year, Mali Health will work with the women from several savings groups on a pilot project to launch small cooperative businesses, giving these women a chance to learn and market new skills. We’ll support and follow the women closely to see whether these cooperatives can help to sustain, or even expand, the health improvements the women have made through their savings groups.

The members of the savings group show off the soap they have purchased for one another.