Empowered Women, Stronger Communities: Savings Groups and Social Impact

May 7, 2024

Left to right: Alia, Hooriya, Khadija, Iman

©️UNDP Syria – Osama Almhamd

Alia's journey began with a desire to challenge societal norms and break free from the conventional image of women confined to household chores. Growing up in rural Raqqa in northern Syria, she vividly remember the phrase "Women belong at home, raising children, cooking and doing household chores" which had motivated her to defy this stereotype. She embarked on a mission to join the Junior Savings Groups project, implemented in Raqqa's rural areas of Subkha and Ma'dan. Alia shared the frustration and disappointment she felt every time she heard these stereotypes, as she believed that many women in rural areas were still bound by various constraints. With limited employment opportunities, women had to work either within their homes and family farmland for free, or on others’ farmlands for meagre wages. At 22 years old and a single mother to a 6-year-old daughter, Ryan, she had moved in with her parents after her husband was killed in the hostilities. Her previous work had primarily been in farm labour, where she earned minimal wages, but she relied on this income entirely to support herself and her daughter.

Alia's journey took a challenging turn as she, along with her family, was forced to flee their home in search of safety. Upon their return after long months of displacement, reality did not align with her hopes, as their family properties had been completely destroyed. She returned to her familiar routine of working in farmlands. 

When Alia first learned about the Junior Savings Groups project, it ignited a spark of hope within her. This spark represented the possibility of crafting a brighter future for both herself and her daughter, one where they could escape the confines of traditional gender roles and financial uncertainty. The project offered the promise of a sustainable income and, more importantly, the empowerment to create a business. 

Alia working behind the register at the grocery store

©️UNDP Syria – Osama Almhamd

Alia partnered with four other women. Hooriyah, 30 years old, Iman, 20 years old, Khadija, 28 years old and Nayfeh, 35 years old. Together they formed the "Ehsan Group"- meaning compassion in Arabic. Together, they opened a grocery store in their town’s market, with Alia overseeing the group's financial aspects. Despite the immense responsibilities and tiredness, she found empowerment in her role, realizing that she could break free from the stereotype that women belong solely in their homes. She proved, both to herself and her partners, that women are capable of excelling in all aspects of life, mastering trade, and engaging with customers. Their enterprise was not only an economic success but also a means to have a positive impact on their community.

The Junior Savings Groups project, an initiative led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Syria and funded by the government of Japan and the government of Finland, is a beacon of empowerment and hope. Comprising groups of young men and women aged 18 to 35, the project encourages collective saving of small amounts of money- agreed upon collectively- in a social fund for six months. This fund is a catalyst for positive change, funding collaborations, mutual support, and social awareness contributing to enhancing the social and economic well-being of both the group members and their communities. Supported by a dedicated project team, the project instils essential skills, inspires teamwork, and cultivates entrepreneurial aspirations. Through transparent decision-making processes, collective savings, and grants provided by UNDP, the Junior Savings Groups project enables Syrian youth to shape their future, one enterprise at a time, strengthening unity and fostering social development.

Alia proudly states, "Today, I am a successful woman in my community. I manage my household and help my family, all while leaving a mark in my town by working on community initiatives with my group. I have discovered that as a capable woman, I can make a difference, not only in my life but also in my community. I run my own business, and I am studying to take the high school diploma exam, hoping to pass and enter the Faculty of Education to become a teacher." 

Hooriya at the grocery store

| ©️UNDP Syria – Osama Almhamd

Hooriya, Alia's partner, is also a single mother of three children: Saleh, 12 years old, Malik, 10 years old, and Omar, 6 years old. “Life was very hard after my husband was killed in the conflict” Said the 30-year-old woman whose face bore the lines of life's hardships.

Hooriya shouldered the responsibility of raising her children and covering their expenses through years of seasonal agricultural labour. After returning from displacement, which was a trying experience, she lived with her husband's family on the northern banks of the Euphrates River. “I worked at the local health centre as a cleaner, earning my wage from the centre’s staff and the assistance of kind-hearted individuals.” said Hooriya. “When I heard about the Junior Savings Groups project, I wasted no time and joined the Ehsan Group, searching for an opportunity to work and provide for my family, whose expenses had grown with their school needs.” She added. 

Given the rising cost of living, the deteriorating economic conditions, and the scarcity of job opportunities, Hooriya’s initial thought after being accepted into the group was to take the grant that the project would provide and use it for anything that would cover her family's expenses. But as the project took off, the training sessions continued, and the idea of collective work was introduced—this was one of the core concepts of the project. She agreed with a group of women to collaborate on a single project. “This was something entirely new for me, involving sales and trade. As the training sessions concluded, and we received the grant from the program, I was incredibly eager to see what had been studied and visualized on paper and in the training room come to life as a real business.” Said Hooriya

©️UNDP Syria – Osama Almhamd

“The sight of the shelves filling up with goods and a ledger gradually adorned with numbers and calculations that summarized our daily profits brought joy to my heart. It provided us with an income that helped us face the challenges and expenses of daily life.” She added.

The initiative also trained and encouraged the participants on how to assess their community needs and plan and implement social activities. “I feel immense happiness when I see my son heading out to play with his friends at the playground that our group had initiated. Our local town's youth gather there every evening,” said Hooriya. “Knowing that we are leaving a positive mark on our community, motivates us to encourage others to undertake more initiatives that help address our town's needs.” She concluded.

In its current phase, the Junior Savings Groups project has directly supported 400 individuals across three governorates: Raqqa, Deir EzZour, and Homs. Of this, 160 participants, with a strong focus on women and youth, have been funded by Japan. An additional 240 individuals, with a particular emphasis on persons with disabilities and those providing support to persons with disabilities, have been funded by Finland. Together, they represent a diverse and empowered collective working towards a brighter future.

This story is a powerful testament to the transformative impact of initiatives like the Junior Savings Groups on women's lives and the broader community, empowering and promoting economic and social development in conflict-affected areas.