In Cairo, Egypt a group of refugee women meet regularly, pooling their money together and making financial decisions for the good of others. Out of the 29 women Fatima is by far the oldest at the age of 110.
Despite being a centenarian, Fatima looks at least forty years younger, with a passion for life to match. She has been affectionately given the nickname “Umena,” by her group, which means “mother.” It’s a fitting title- not just because of her age. Fatima is a mother of seven. She was also the first person to open a school for girls in her hometown of Maqal in Sudan.
Fatima belongs to one of the many Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) groups that CARE, an anti-poverty and human rights charity, has worked with around the world since 1991. Each group has between 15 to 25 people, the majority of which are women, who meet regularly to save their money in a safe space. The money is used to support each other to set up businesses, negotiate fair prices in the marketplace, advocate for gender equality in their communities, and pursue public office. By 2030, CARE International hopes to have supported over 50 million people to build their businesses by providing training in savings, loans, and financial literacy.
Fatima’s group is called El Lama El Helwa — which is loosely translated as “the best company”. The group saved 100,000 EGP ($3,231 USD) which is equivalent to the average Egyptian’s annual salary. The savings allow loans to be given to vulnerable women, giving them financial security. One member of the group used the entrepreneur sessions within the group to launch her own hair care range. Another took a loan to buy a hand mixer to make and sell baked goods.
Fatima, like many of the refugee women in Egypt, is from Sudan. Due to conflict in her home country, she has lived in Cairo for 13 years. The United Nations has reported that 57% of households registering for refuge are led by women like Fatima and the members of her group. However, one day she hopes to go back to Sudan to be reunited with her children, who are spread out around the world. Fatima has found a home with the women in her group, however.
“All my friends are long gone,” she says. ”But I’m glad I’ve found this group of women to keep me in high spirits. And good company.”
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