Ilsa Dolores Gomez spent 5 days last year at a Catholic Relief Services workshop learning the ins and outs of leading a community savings group. She learned how to use a lock box, how to fill out a deposit registry and why savings groups need five officers to run smoothly.
By the end of the week, the 40-year-old mother of five knew more than she ever thought was possible about savings groups, a simple approach to microfinance that CRS uses around the world.
But the thing that impressed Ilsa most was a note slipped to her on the last day of class. It read, "You are a strong woman. You can do it."
She suspected the writer was Ana Pascual, the CRS program manager who led the workshop. What was less obvious to Ilsa was how Ana knew she lived in fear.
"It was as if she knew that the person taking the workshop wasn't me—that I just kept thinking about what would be waiting for me when I got home each night," says Ilsa.
During the next few weeks, Ilsa played the words on that note over in her head, imagining they were true. She dared, for the first time, to picture a future free of the abuse that had defined her 20-year marriage.
Microfinance Class Leads to Self-Discovery
For women like Ilsa who take part in CRS' savings groups, the greatest effect sometimes does not appear in the lesson plan.
Members of saving groups pool their money into a community fund until someone needs to take out a loan, or needs extra money because a family member falls ill, or the group decides to buy something. For people who are often too poor to access credit, it's a simple way to start saving money and plan for the future.
But it's the strength that comes from playing a leading role in their families and in their communities that often has a lasting effect.
"If you think about savings groups in purely financial terms, then you're always going to be poor," says Sister Patria Fernández Cesperes, who works with CRS to help women in Loma de Cabrera, a small town near the border with Haiti.
For Ilsa, the note sent her down a path of self-discovery that culminated in going back to school and the purchase of a blow dryer.
"I would think about that note and ask myself why she [Ana] said it," says Ilsa, who has spent what has seemed like a lifetime under the thumb of her abusive husband. When they married, he promised she could finish her high school degree. He kept putting it off. Months turned into years, and she never went back.
Meanwhile, his jealousy—a trait that was flattering at first—turned ferocious. He wouldn't let her out of his sight. The only place she went alone was to visit her mother, and a fight preceded even that.
Her husband forbade her from dressing up or wearing makeup. He once hacked off the ends of her hair to keep her from going to the hair salon, something she has only managed to do a handful of times in 2 decades.
He controlled the household budget, dishing out money in keeping with his mood. "When he is angry, he buys the food for the house late," she says. "Or he just says he doesn't have any money."
Receiving the note was the first time Ilsa could recall someone thinking she had something to offer. "That filled me with strength," she says.
She ultimately started not one, but two savings groups.
Within months, Ilsa made the decision to go back to school. Today, her grades are the best in her 9th grade class.
She bought a blow dryer and a couple of brushes. Some nights, she and her oldest daughter turn the front patio into a beauty salon and wash and dry each other's hair. Occasionally, a neighbor will stop by and pay to have her hair done.
The extra money helps pay the household bills, but it's much more than that.
"I'm depending on myself," says Ilsa. "And never really thought I could do what I am doing. And little by little, I'm actually doing it."
Robyn Fieser is CRS' regional information officer for Latin America and the Caribbean. She is based in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.