WEvolution: Empowering Women Through Relationship-Driven Self-Reliant Groups
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WEvolution enables women from disadvantaged communities in Scotland to form Self-Reliant Groups (SRGs). Through SRGs women empower themselves by developing strong friendships, saving money, learning skills and supporting each other to create entrepreneurial opportunities. WEvolution started with funding from the Church of Scotland in 2011. This allowed women from Glasgow to visit Mumbai to learn from people and organisations in the Indian women’s self-help group movement, which inspired them.
How does WEvolution work?
WEvolution is careful not to be too prescriptive with its definition of an SRG. But as a guide, after much iteration, WEvolution and its members now loosely define an SRG as a group of 5 to 10 people from a shared economic/social background who support each other and develop friendships. An SRG typically:
- Sets rules and expectations around how the group will run;
- Meets regularly and agrees to start saving – often £1 per person per meeting – in a common fund;
- Uses savings and other income to lend to each other in times of need and crisis;
- Learns skills together;
- Starts a small business which, in time, will help earn an income to support themselves and their families.
WEvolution offers practical support to SRGs in four main ways:
- SRG start-up and development. WEvolution helps new SRGs to set-up and provides ongoing support. It uses training sessions to help SRGs build a strong collective identity and explore how they would like to work together. As an SRG develops, WEvolution provides ongoing support and networking events.
- Income generation support. WEvolution helps train and mentor SRGs, from generating business ideas through all aspects of running a business.
- Small group loans. Through its WeeChange microfinance fund, WEvolution offers loans of between £25 and £5,000 at either interest-free or affordable rates.
- Creating an enabling environment. WEvolution works to grow its SRG network and provide “connecting spaces” to incubate business ideas. It also brings SRG members together to develop policy recommendations, for example around welfare benefits.
WEvolution identifies five core principles that guide its work:
- There is collective power in the group;
- Every person is valuable and equal;
- People have the ability to change their circumstances;
- Work should be done alongside local people as equal partners;
- Innovation and optimism are pathways to inspire enterprise and change.
Strong, trusting relationships between women are the very heart of WEvolution’s approach. These relationships are treated as a powerful vehicle for developing resilience, confidence, skills, income and, ultimately, an improvement in life circumstances. Relationships underpin the impact of WEvolution’s 45 active SRGs in these areas.
What impact is WEvolution having?
- Of approximately 225 2017/18 SRG members (45 active SRGs with an average of five members each), 87 reported improved health. Many women specifically say their SRG has helped improve their mental health. Caroline, for example, says, “It’s definitely having a positive impact because it does motivate me to go and, when I get there it’s great, it’s just great to be in among the company… I think the SRG is the right balance, where it doesn’t expect too much from me, it puts enough pressure on me to give me the motivation. So I think it’s really good for anybody that has mental-health problems.”
- This is linked to the fact that SRGs help reduce social isolation. In a representative comment, a member named Rebecca said, “I was one for just lying in my bed with depression. I just wanted to bury my life away for the way I felt at that time. This gives you a purpose to get up in the morning for. I just love doing it. At times it is hard work, but it is well worth doing.”
- 105 members (of approximately 225) reported increased skills 2017/18. This comes through testimony. One member, Rachel, says, “At first when I started, with the sewing machine, I had no idea how to thread, where to press the pedal, what to do. But now I know I can pick up the work now and do it on my own.”
- 5 members moved into education and 9 into employment in 2017/18
- In 2017/18, SRGs generated £16,741 in income and saved £5,825. This is a considerable amount when it is considered SRGs are formed from Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities.
- SRGs help build economic resilience. Many members report greater economic resilience through access to free loans if needed, instead of doorstep money lenders. As Jo explained, “The doorstep loans you just phone them up and they would just come out, you would sign a form how much they would be able to give you. And then before you know it you would be getting £300 off them, but you owe them £1300 back.”
What do we think WEvolution can teach us about effective relationship-centred design?
Reciprocity – or a two-way exchange of skills and knowledge – builds trust and confidence in asking for help
In WEvolution’s SRGs, each member contributes skills, effort and finance. This makes asking for support easier, creating more cooperative and resilient communities. On asking for a loan from her SRG, Michelle said, “I felt OK, because I think that other people in the group, I don’t think they would be embarrassed if they needed money for a cooker or anything”.
Trust and agency are the lifeblood of strong relationships, particularly among vulnerable communities
The agency involved in contributing to SRGs, and the trust these contributions earn from other members, are central to the positive changes members experience. On the sense of importance she felt upon assuming the role of SRG Treasurer, for example, a member named Lorna said, “You don’t often get people from the life that I’ve came from that will trust you.”
Shared experiences offer a powerful foundation for supportive relationships
As Dr. O’Connor’s research explains, “Mutual respect and understanding of shared life experiences gave women a sense that, as two SRG members said in interviews, they were ‘all in the same boat.’” A sense of commonality acts as a source of confidence, trust and mutual support.
Sometimes people need a catalyst to come together, even if they have shared experiences
WEvolution offers a framework and a reason to encourage women to come together in a way they might not usually, even if they are from the same place and have much in common. WEvolution gives a nudge to get started.
Not all relationships are entirely ‘organic’; sometimes training and rules are required
Setting clear expectations and rules around how an SRG will work is usually key to its success. This is especially true given the challenges around balancing individual and group goals, and the inability of some women to attend regularly given other commitments such as job seeking to maintain benefit payments. Initially at least, WEvolution uses training sessions to help new members think through these considerations. Training, then, is often an essential first step in fostering powerful relationships through SRGs.
What’s next for WEvolution?
WEvolution envisions a world where people in our least understood communities, especially women, take control of their lives. Its long-term vision, or ‘end-game’, is of an SRG movement that grows to a critical mass where it generates its own momentum, attracts private and public investment and is easily implemented by organisations and individuals – without notable support needed from WEvolution or other such organisations.
To date, WEvolution has conducted DIY SRG trainings and partnered with six organisations to implement SRGs in new locations in England, Wales and the Netherlands. Wevolution is now aiming to transition into a centre for excellence, continuing to start and support a small number of SRGs, but mainly focusing on championing the model, building SRGs into an open-source movement and conducting research on best practice.
Want to learn more?
- Dr. Clementine Hill O’Connor, of Glasgow Caledonian University, conducted ethnographic research into the impact of WEvolution SRGs in 2017.
- WEvolution’s 2017/18 impact report is online.
- The WEvolution website has lots more information.
Has this case study inspired any comments, ideas or critiques?
Please do get in touch with us at email@example.com if so. An essential part of the Relationships Project is learning from others engaged in thinking about relationship-centred design. We don’t have all the answers, so hope some people reading will contribute suggestions.