Ms. Seam Mak’s early life was one of hardship and for the first part of her marriage it seemed that history would repeat itself, with her children trapped in the same cycle of poverty that she had experienced. However, as a result of her involvement with CARE’s Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) project, Mak has not only improved her own economic situation and increased her confidence, but ensured that her children will have more opportunities to develop their own skills.
Mak’s father passed away when she was just a baby, leaving her mother to care for Mak and her nine siblings. The family depended on the money her older siblings could earn fishing, but this only just provided enough for them to eat and there was never any money for her to go to school. Instead, from a young age, Mak contributed to the family’s income by transplanting rice, which barely earned her a dollar a day.
Her income continued to rely on fishing when she married a fisherman at 19. Mak speaks of her fear of the sea when they were out on the boat for long periods of time: “My daughter and I went fishing with my husband at sea and we were often scared that a storm would come. Once, when we were fishing we were out in a storm with very heavy rain, cried and held each other because we were so afraid. At the time, I was terrified that my daughter would drown.” Sadly, Mak’s fears were later realised when her elder son drowned when he was just 10 years old.
The loss of her child had a devastating effect on her family life―as she dealt with her grief, she also endured abuse from her husband, who then abandoned her. Mak says, “When my first child passed away my husband was broken-hearted, he always beat me and the children. My teeth are broken because he beat me. Moreover, he did not go to earn money to support the family and he left home for many months.”
Left to support her family alone just has her mother had been, Mak and her daughter tried to earn money by repairing fishing nets or sticking the price labels on packets of shrimp. Despite working long hours she was unable to earn more than $5 a day and her income was very irregular. “The money I earned was not enough to support my family; sometimes, I did not have money to buy food, and I could not afford to send all my children to school. I decided to sell my property, including our fishing boat, to support my family.” Mak also borrowed money from a Micro Finance Institution (MFI), but very high interest rates made repaying this loan difficult and she often had to choose between repaying her debts or feeding her children.
Community savings bring hope
It was at this point in her life that Mak encountered the VSLA project. CARE’s VSLAs are community-based savings groups, where members purchase shares in the group and are also able to take out loans with lower interest rates than MFIs or money lenders. Involvement with the VSLA has not only improved her financial circumstances but has completely changed Mak’s outlook on life and allowed her to afford a better future for her children.
During the first round of savings, Mak borrowed from the group twice: once to buy school materials for her children and another time to buy rice and groceries for her family. It was not just loans that she has gained from her participation. As part of the VSLA project, Mak received training from CARE in leadership, developing group policies, savings and credit activities, including detailed knowledge of the shares and loans system. In addition, she continued to work with CARE to improve her knowledge and skills by attending training on key family health practices.
Working with other women in the community gave Mak greater confidence in herself and made her much more motivated. “I always attend the saving group every week,” says Mak. “I want to know how much money I have saved and I feel very happy when I count my shares.” She has become an active member of her community and encourages others to become group members.
Empowered to take charge of her life
Mak’s new-found knowledge enabled her to stand up to her husband when he returned. “After I saved money for many months with my neighbours, my husband came back home and said he wants me to stop being part of the group. He reprimanded me, saying ‘Why do you need the group to keep your money, I do not want you to join this group’.” Mak’s ability to communicate with him when she was being criticised shows how continued involvement with the VSLA empowers women to have a voice within their families and stand up for their rights.
Her husband quickly changed his attitude towards the VSLA when Mak received her first share payout after nine months, gaining over $100. He was so happy with her earnings that when she decided to use part of the money to buy pigs to raise, he supported her by helping to build a pigpen. Now that she has started a small pig-raising business at home, Mak no longer has to worry about having to go fishing at sea and feels she has started a new positive chapter in her life.
Confident about the future
With this new respect and encouragement from her husband, Mak is hopeful about the future and is now looking to improve the prospects of her children. “In the second savings round, I will borrow some money from group as I want to buy a bicycle for my son to ride to school,” she says. “My family is trying to earn money to save in the group because when I receive the payout for my shares, I want to buy a motorcycle for my daughter to ride to school. At the moment, she travels with her friend so she does not study regularly. We do not have enough money yet, but I will try to earn more as I do not want her to be illiterate like me.”
Mak is grateful that the VSLA project enabled her to move away from depending on the earnings or loans from others and find her own way to provide for her family. With her own business and the new-found confidence in her skills, she feels able to fight the poverty that had such an impact on her early years. Her goal is now to ensure that her children have access to opportunities that she could never afford before, allowing them to continue to improve their future prospects.