20th June 2019

This World Refugee Day we are sharing stories of mothers living in Gihembe refugee camp, Rwanda, who are using savings groups to improve their lives and plan for the future.

One of these mothers is 35-year-old Speciose, who is one of 68 million forcibly displaced people in the world.

We met Speciose through an organisation Comic Relief funds with Jersey Overseas Aid in Rwanda – the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) – because she has used savings groups (thanks to Plan International) to help rebuild her life. Our new funding will help more women like this join groups in the very near future.

Speciose fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when she was just a child and arrived in Rwanda, having lost everything and unsure of how she was going to support herself. Now Speciose is a single-mother to four children and lives with her mother who she also supports in Gihembe refugee camp. 

“I came here because I was fleeing the war, we arrived here [Gihembe] in December 1997 and I came alone. 

 “My eldest child is 12 years old, the second born is nine, the third is four, and the last one is two years old. It is very difficult to maintain all of these four children. It is me alone, I do not live with my husband.”

Life in the camp – which is home to nearly 13,000 people, the majority of whom have also fled conflict from DRC – is very difficult and residents face many challenges. There is a lack of space and shelter for the growing population; people don’t have access to electricity in their homes; access to water is limited; and opportunities for people to find work and earn an income are scarce. Speciose has been able to find work, but it’s not always guaranteed.

“I wake up very early in the morning every day and go for water. We are normally given water at 6 in the morning. I then come back and prepare porridge for my children and then they go to school. Most of the work I do is temporary work, like giving support to the construction workers. I don’t have something permanently, I just work when something comes up. When I don’t have any work to do for that day, I engage in my community work, wash clothing and prepare lunch for my children.”

Three years ago, Speciose’s children were diagnosed with malnutrition. To help provide more nutritious food for her children, she was encouraged to join a community savings group. 

She said: “At first, I was a bit sceptical about the benefits I would get from the group, but I joined on the basis of the encouragement I received. It has really brought a lot of change for my family.”

The introduction of savings groups to the camp was vital for Speciose and her family as it meant she could access a loan to help feed her children and pay for the important vitamins they needed. Each week she contributes 200-1,000 Rwandan francs into a shared pot. The money is then used to give out loans to members of the group which must be repaid with a small amount of interest. During the cycle of the savings group, the pot of money of money grows as do members savings. By increasing their savings and the opportunities to access loans, members are able to increase their financial resilience and become more secure.

“The nutritional status of my children improved, as I managed to buy three chickens that gave me eggs on which I fed them, which improved their health. I also managed to buy clothes for myself and sweaters as part of the school uniform for my children, and a loan for my children.

“The main dream I have from the savings group is to expand my business. With the savings group, I normally get short loans and I buy tomatoes. I bring them home and sell them, usually making a profit of about 1,200 francs. I would like to join the main market in the camp which is better than what I’m doing at home.

“I used to be perpetually indebted, but now I no longer indebted. I get a loan, do my business, buy food for my children.

“When we finish the savings group activities we go into parents evening, where we talk about our families and how we can do it better. I enjoy being with others in the group – we socialise. I’m extremely happy with the step I have made in my life. It has really brought a lot of change for my family.” 

Savings groups are so important to members like Speciose. They create opportunities to cover unexpected medical emergency costs, such as buying vitamins for their children; give members the chance to pay for their family’s education and healthcare; and the chance to invest in decisions that have the potential to change lives, via savings and loans.

Funding from the Comic Relief and Jersey Overseas Aid partnership to UNCDF is supporting refugees to access basic financial services, some for the first time since being displaced from their home country. This funding will help set up more savings groups for women, like Speciose, and young people living in refugee camps across Rwanda.