Kitty parties and informal finance for women

Hanniah Tariq on developing a vital financial option for women from marginalised regions

Kitty parties and informal finance for women
When I was younger I asked my mother about her once-a-month tea with the ladies from the neighbourhood. When she informed me that it was a ‘kitty party’, I got overly excited and insisted that she take me along. At the time I was under the impression that all the ladies brought their cats for a little tea party once a month! Then I suspiciously noted that our cat was right there on the couch, grooming itself without a care in the world. When my amused mother tried to explain that ‘kitty’ referred the common fund raised by the ladies on the block rather than actual felines in attendance, I promptly lost interest and returned to watching cartoons – the momentary thrill of growing up and getting to play with 20 cats at a time while having tea and cake all but destroyed. What I didn’t realise at the time was that my grown-up self would be even more excited about the concept of Community-Based Savings Programmes (CBSG) and their implications for women in the more remote areas of the country.

I was reintroduced to the idea in the Gilgit-Baltistan region last year when we stopped at the office of Mr. Rahat Ali, Manager Institutional Development for the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), for a cup of tea and a chat. There we learned about an initiative of the AKRSP which involves community-based savings for women in the remote villages where the kitty party is being used for a very valuable purpose. Hearing about it, I felt the same thrill that I did as a 5-year-old imagining cats having tea with their owners once a month. It is truly amazing how much can be accomplished with simple, clear ideas and community participation.

In Thaley, in the far north, a simple hospital trip can become a huge financial challenge

In poor and remote communities, making ends meet can be a challenge, particularly for women. According to the World Bank, women are generally “20 percent less likely than men to have an account at a formal financial institution and 17 percent less likely to have borrowed formally in the past year”. In case of emergencies or unplanned expenses, entire families can end up suffering due to this lack of access to formal financial services or loans. For some of the villages in Baltistan that I have spent the most time in, like Hushe for example, the nearest bank can be more than 6 hours away by road. This distance, in addition to factors like most women never having had a National Identity Card (NIC), results in most of them being unable to have a bank account to begin with. In these villages the AKRSP has made tremendous progress by improving access to financial services for women through CBSGs.

The system being implemented is simple but effective. 15 to 20 women make one committee and chose their own by-laws including the amount deposited by each member, the frequency of meetings and interest rates on loans. A share can be somewhere between PKR 50 to 500 with each member deciding independently how many shares they would like. These are deposited in a large wooden box during the planned meetings. Three women are then responsible for the money: a box keeper, a money counter and the key keeper. In case of financial difficulties or emergencies, loans can then be obtained by members of the committee. For example, as most of the men engage in seasonal labour, families can be left particularly vulnerable. However with CBSGs in operation women have immediate access to cash.

Kitty parties can play very different roles across classes

The AKRSP works to provide community-based financing

Consider the following instance. In the village of Thaley in the Shigar district, a child with a badly broken arm had to be taken to a hospital in Khaplu while the father was away. The money required for the trip would have been impossible for the mother to access immediately, however as she was a member of a CBSG she was able to manage the expense and get her son medical attention straightaway. Availing economic opportunities has also become easier for women in these villages. For example, according to the AKRSP Local Support Organisation representative for Thaley, one of the CBSGs in the village collectively saved for two years – and they are now running a successful apricot business together. Consequently, these groups are not just helping with access problems but also helping to form lasting bonds in communities.

Committees are also a mainstay for some of the more economically marginalised women in the south. Last week at a parlour in Karachi, while getting a much needed trim, I got to chatting with my regular attendant. I have been going to the same place for years and have the pleasure of this lovely lady’s upbeat conversation often. She is getting married in June and was talking about the enormous expenses being incurred. When I asked her how she is planning to manage (her parents passed away when she was young, leaving her the sole breadwinner for her household) she very triumphantly replied that all the ladies in the parlour have a committee! They deposit PKR 2,000 a month and then choose a month that they would like their returns on. She has selected April so she can get kitchen equipment and some furniture for her new life without any hardship.
For villages in Baltistan, like Hushe, the nearest bank can be more than 6 hours away. This distance, and factors like most women having no NIC, means they cannot have a bank account

It is wonderful and inspiring to see women managing lack of access to financial services with community-based solutions from the extreme north to the very south of Pakistan! Programs like CBSGs have become an extremely crucial tool for cash flow management and emergency response for numerous households. Currently, there are about 23,007 CBSGs with 413,649 members being supported by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) worldwide. They have been particularly useful to women with 73% of the membership exclusively availed by them. The total annual savings from these groups is the substantial amount of USD 13,301,106. In the privileged classes, however (like most concepts it seems), community-based saving has been gentrified to the point of no consequence. Kitty parties have become just another way to parade around in designer lawns, expensive jewelry and talk about who vacationed in Europe this summer rather than anything else.

They might as well invite the cats.