Empowered women eliminating poverty…such a lofty, even righteous statement. This is the mission of Friendship Bridge, our host in Guatemala, dedicated to assisting impoverished women in creating a better life for themselves and their communities through microfinance and education since 1998. Their task is big with half of Guatemalan children under five suffering from malnutrition — the highest rate in Latin America and the fourth highest in the world. The women, on average, have 2.6 years of formal education and are not able to read or write, but they are determined to help their families.
But how exactly does one effect change even a minuscule amount when the odds are so overwhelming? Is it possible for a woman in a third world country to improve her standard of living? Our 2017 Women International Leaders (WIL) of Greater Philadelphia set out to see those strategies first-hand.
At the Kacao Restaurant we were brought up to date on the many new projects of Friendship Bridge by Board Member Carolina Roca. The next day we traveled to Sumpango to participate in the annual kite festival. Every year on this day, people from the town gather at the soccer field next to the cemetery. Kites of all shapes and sizes fly in a contest for creativity and length of flight. The kites are chasing away the bad spirits and are wildly colorful depictions of life.
On day two we traveled to Chichicastenango to visit a woman whose family farmed onions. She greeted us running down a sopping wet muddy path to the road where our van had stopped. We gathered around this mother of five and listened as our guide translated the challenges of farming and running a small store. In the distance, we could see family members huddled around huge stacks of freshly-picked onions, washing them by hand so that they could be transported to market.
On Day 3 — we visited an artisan loan client in Santa Catarina Palopo with gorgeous daughters — one of whom spoke five languages. Our mode of transport for the day: standing in a pickup truck. What a way to experience the mountain views! The next day, another Friendship Bridge client in San Juan La Laguna, demonstrated her cotton hand-dying techniques for weaving and needlework. Guatemalan women wear the traditional blouse or huipil, each one unique with designs and symbols that have sacred meaning. The various hues and patterns reflect the different Mayan communities. One garment takes many months to complete.
Guatemala is a land of breathtaking beauty. Our hotel, on Lake Atitlán in Panajachel, located in the highlands of Guatemala, is a much-desired location for weddings and vacationers, providing us with a stark contrast to the day-to-day living conditions for the women we visited. Their homes, made of plywood and tin, provide only minimal shelter.
After we arrived in Antigua, it was in one of those structures where our group observed a “Trust Bank” meeting. These are groups of about ten women who come together to borrow a small loan for a variety of businesses: weaving, farming midwifery, etc. All the women were traditionally dressed, with one in a blouse of the same pattern as the souvenir tote bag that I had just purchased in one of the many markets in town.
The “Loan Facilitator” played a game with the women, filling in numbers on a wall chart to illustrate costs and expenses for them to more accurately predict their profit margins. It was difficult to tell if the lesson made sense to them, but they all participated and loved having their pictures taken. Because the entire group is responsible for the loan, all the women then paid their monthly installment to the “President,” who counted it carefully for deposit.
Step one in empowerment achieved.
The trip provided such a rare glimpse into the lives of some very remarkable women. When we were not observing the results of Friendship Bridge first-hand, we were soaking up many of the wonderful benefits of being in Guatemala. The food was delicious with one restaurant more beautiful than the next. We dined at the best Guatemala had to offer. One of the most enjoyable activities while not on tour was shopping, shopping and more shopping! The markets were alive with so many items including colorful clothing, unique leather products, sparkling jewelry, as well as paintings and sculpture. All of the WIL participants purchased treasured souvenirs reminding us of our special time in this place.