Ms. Seam Mak is 39 years old and lives in Koh Kong province, where she was also born. Her father passed away when she was just a baby, leaving Mak’s mother with ten children to support. The family depended on the money her mother and older siblings could earn by fishing, but this was just enough for food and there was no money for Mak to go to school. Instead, from a young age, she contributed to the family’s income by transplanting rice, which barely earned her a dollar a day.
She married a fisherman at 19 and she has four children, two girls and two boys. She says with sadness, ‘Nowadays, I just have three children because my elder son drowned when he was just 10 years old.’
The loss of her child had a devastating effect on her family life – as she dealt with her grief, she also endured abuse from her husband, who then abandoned her. Mak says, ‘When my first child passed away my husband was broken-hearted, he always beat me and the children. My teeth are broken because he beat me. Moreover, he did not go to earn money to support the family and he left home for many months.’
Left to support her family alone, just has her mother had been, Mak and her daughter tried to earn money by repairing fishing nets, but despite working long hours she was unable to earn more than five dollars a day and her income was very irregular. ‘The money I earned was not enough to support my family; sometimes, I did not have money to buy food, and I could not afford to send all my children to school. Even cooking room I did not have money to build. I decided to sell my property, including our fishing boat, to support my family,’ she told CARE. Mak also borrowed money from a Micro Finance Institution (MFI) and middleman in her village, but very high-interest rates made repaying this loan difficult and she often had to choose between repaying her debts or feeding her children.
It was at this point in her life that Mak encountered the VSLA project. CARE’s VSLAs are community-based savings groups, where members purchase shares in the group and are also able to take out loans with lower interest rates. Involvement with the VSLA has not only improved her financial circumstances, but has completely changed Mak’s outlook on life and allowed her a better future for her children.
But it wasn’t just loans that she has gained from her participation. As part of the VSLA project, Mak received training from CARE in leadership, group policies development, savings and credit activities, and detailed knowledge of the shares and loans system. In addition, she improved her knowledge and skills by attending training on family health practices.
Joining with other women in the community gave Mak greater confidence and made her much more motivated. ‘I always attend the saving group every week,’ says Mak. ‘I want to know about the amount of money I have saved and I feel very happy when I count my share.’ She has become an active member of her community and continues to encourage others to become members of the group.
Mak’s newfound knowledge enabled her to stand up to her husband when he returned. ‘After I saved money for months with my neighbours, my husband came back home and he wants me to stop being part of the group. He reprimanded me, saying “Why do you need the group keep your money, I do not want you join this group.”’ But with her newfound confidence, Mak was able to stand up for herself.
Her husband changed his attitude towards the VSLA when Mak received her first share after nine months, gaining over 100 dollars. He was so happy with the return that when she decided to use part of the money to buy pigs to raise, he supported her by helping to build a pigpen. Now she has started a small pig-raising business at home, Mak no longer has to go fishing and has started a new chapter in her life.
With this new respect and encouragement from her husband, Mak is hopeful about the future and is now looking to improve the prospects of her children. ‘In the second saving round, I will borrow some money from the group as I want to buy a bicycle for my son to ride to school and to buy more pigs,’ she says. ‘I want to buy a motorcycle for my daughter to ride to school. At the moment, she travels with her friend so she does not study regularly. We do not have enough money yet, but I will try to earn more as I do not want her to be illiterate like me.’
‘I would like to thank CARE for providing a chance for me to join the savings group, and saving me and my children from a dangerous life fishing on the sea. Nowadays, I can push my family to live with improvement.’
Mak is grateful for the fact that the VSLA project enabled her to move away from depending on the earnings or loans from others and find her own way to provide for her family. With her own business and the new-found confidence in her skills, she feels able to fight the poverty that had such an impact on her early years. Her goal is now to ensure that her children have access to opportunities that she could never afford before, allowing them a better future.