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Lost dignity restored

SANTOS HERN'ANDEZ is learning to read. At 34, this mother of four who never attended school is starting out on a new life. It's not the first time: Seven years ago, her husband left her to raise her children alone.

She was living in northeastern El Salvador, raising corn, beans, pigs, and chickens on a quarter of an acre of land. She also sold vegetables in the streets, carrying them in a basket on her head.

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In 1984, civil war swept through the region. Her corn crop was destroyed, and her life and the lives of her children were in danger.

Mrs. Hern'andez was obliged to move to a refugee camp, and to accept grants of money and food from relief agencies.

It was a miserable life in the camp. Hernandez says she felt that she was ``losing my dignity.'' The worst part, she says, was ``putting out my hand'' to receive food.

One day last January she heard about a community bank being organized in a town next to the camp. She went to a meeting and that night, along with 40 others, received her first loan ever - $40. The bank is financed by Save the Children and organized by the Foundation for International Community Assistance (Finca), an independent agency based in Tucson, Ariz.

With $35 she bought a tiny shack for herself and her children to live in. She used the remaining $5 to buy vegetables for resale in a local market.

Hern'andez earned a profit of $2.40 a day, out of which she saved 40 cents a day toward repayment of her six-month loan.

She was charged 3 percent interest per month. She repaid the $40, plus $7.20 interest, thus becoming eligible to receive a second loan of $48.

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She says that for the first time in her life, saving has become a habit, and she likes the power it gives her.

Now in her second loan cycle, Hern'andez has bought a pig and chickens.

She expects to make a profit of $30 when she sells the pig at Christmas. Her children are all attending school, and she is enrolled in a literacy class offered by Save the Children and Finca.

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