Helping Girls Build a Financial Safety Net

Posted on August 30, 2012, by Karen Austrian, Associate in Poverty, Gender and Youth Program, Population Council


About eight years ago, a 16-year-old girl named Lily*, who lived in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, taught me why economic empowerment is essential for adolescent girls. Because of her, and girls like her, the Population Council is developing programs that are changing the way the world thinks about girls’ capacity to protect themselves and gain control of their lives.

One Saturday at a community meeting, Lily led a forum for about 100 young people on safe sex and HIV. She showed the young people how to put on a condom by demonstrating with a banana. She answered everybody’s questions. She was confident, funny, knowledgeable, empowered, and everyone looked up to her.

The next day, she came to me and another staff member at the center, and said, “Can you help me? I need emergency contraception.” We were shocked. We knew that if she needed emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy, then she must have had unprotected sex. Why would such a well-informed and self-assured girl have risked having unprotected sex?

She explained that, “I came home from the community forum, and my mom said I needed to give her 200 shillings to pay the rent or else we were going to be evicted at the end of the week, because she didn’t have enough money to pay the rent.” (200 shillings is about the equivalent of $2.50.) “I knew if I went to my boyfriend — who is older than me, he is in his twenties, and has a job — he could help me out with some money. I didn’t want to make a fuss about using a condom because I knew in the end I was going to ask for extra money to pay the rent, and I didn’t feel like getting into another argument about using a condom. So, we had unprotected sex.”

That was a light bulb moment for me. Here’s a girl who’s has high self esteem, is a leader, has communication skills, and knows everything there is to know about her health and her body, but her economic situation puts her in a perilous position.

Girl participating in the Population Council’s Safe and Smart Savings project. (Photo by Karen Austrian, courtesy of the Population Council.)

When we look at the lives of vulnerable adolescent girls, a big part of their vulnerability is that they are financially dependent on other people. There is a clear link between a person’s health situation and their economic situation. A girl can have all the knowledge she needs about how not to get pregnant and how to avoid HIV. But, at the end of the day, if she is financially dependent on her boyfriend, or her partner, she loses the ability to negotiate, and the power dynamics in that relationship sway in the favor of the person who has the money.

Helping girls from a very young age build their own safety net, their own savings — just a small lump sum that they can go to in case of an emergency — really puts them in a different standing. Poverty is all about survival; without your own resources, you have to manage today and let tomorrow sort itself out. Just the act of saving breaks that mold. When you combine savings with financial education, it helps girls develop goal-setting behaviors and a future orientation, and also provides them with a safety net to help them mitigate risky situations or to maneuver emergency situations.

The Population Council is defining the best ways to teach poor girls in developing countries about money, help them save, and help them prepare for crisis situations like the one in which Lily found herself. We are partnering with several institutions in Africa, like MicroSave Consulting, Ltd., which specializes in building sustainable and viable savings products for low-income people. We are also working with banks that are committed to making services available to poor people: K-Rep Bank and Faulu Kenya Limited in Kenya; and FINCA-Uganda and Finance Trust in Uganda. Girls in our Safe and Smart Savings project open formal savings accounts, learn basic savings and budgeting skills, and find out about HIV and reproductive health, all in a girl-only space where they are safe from harassment and have a female mentor from their community. More than 8,000 girls have enrolled.

Working with financial institutions and girls’ programs in Kenya and Uganda, Council researchers are developing ways for adolescent girls to gain financial literacy and save money. (Photo courtesy Population Council)

Our research has shown that compared to girls who are not enrolled, girls in these groups have more robust social networks, are more mobile, are more likely to have future life goals, have greater knowledge about HIV and reproductive health, and communicate more with parents and guardians about financial issues. They are also less likely to be sexually harassed and teased.

A mere $2.50 could have helped Lily avoid putting herself at risk of pregnancy and disease. Thankfully, Lily was later able to gain vital financial knowledge and skills. She has gone on to complete secondary school, and has a savings account and a job that helped her move out of the slums and allow her to support her mother, younger siblings, and, more recently, her infant daughter. Programs that give girls the knowledge and ability to save money will help them become as self-sufficient as Lily, and transform their lives.

Karen Austrian is an associate in the Poverty, Gender, and Youth program in the Population Council’s Nairobi office. Learn more about Population Council's work and connect with them on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

*Name has been changed