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Earning Money and Respect

Guatemala, April 3, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Nathan Golon for Mercy Corps  </span>
    48-year-old Maria Reyes sells food staples such as pasta, sodas, and tortilla ingredients from a separate area of her modest mud-walled home. Photo: Nathan Golon for Mercy Corps

Tucurú, Guatemala — Even after three days of small-business training and a 78-dollar loan, Maria Reyes had her doubts. Apart from her household chores, the 48-year-old mother of ten had never been given so much responsibility. How was she ever going to operate a tienda from her hillside home in this remote countryside?

"I worried a lot in those days," Maria admits. "I was scared because I had a loan I needed to pay back."

But each month, she paid back 38 Quetzales (about US$5) of the loan that was guaranteed by other members by others in her women's solidarity group. And soon she began earning even more.

Maria is one of 400 women in Guatemala's central highlands who are learning how to manage small shops, weave colorful clothing and take care of chickens, pigs and cows — all of which are contributing to their families' bottom line.

For these women, it's a chance to break the cycle of exclusion and poverty — to break traditional gender barriers and take their family's financial future into their own hands. Most indigenous women in Alta Verapaz are illiterate and don't speak Spanish. School was never a priority; they were brought up to perform domestic chores, marry young and raise their own children.

Expanding a Health Strategy

Back in 2001, Mercy Corps and the Jack and Marie Eiting Foundation, in partnership with the Guatemalan health ministry, developed a program to improve maternal and infant health in 30 Tucurú communities. By 2004, they decided to expand their work to uproot rural poverty, according to Dr. Rafael Carranza, manager of Mercy Corps' Community Health and Microcredit Project.

Poverty in the Tucurú region of Guatemala remains stubbornly entrenched. Most families still rely on simple subsistence agriculture, growing corn, beans and chili peppers to feed their family. Farm workers don't fare much better. Although Guatemala's economy grew in the early part of the decade, minimum salaries have stayed the same while prices rose. Rural families in particular have fallen further behind.

A 2005 expansion of Mercy Corps' program extended coverage to all Tucurú communities, promoted reproductive health and family planning, initiated HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention activities — and launched a women's microcredit program.

The idea was to empower women to help lift family incomes by launching small-scale enterprises that were culturally acceptable and environmentally friendly. Sixteen loan solidarity groups were formed, each with between 15 and 40 women. The groups participated in trainings about market research, loans, costs of doing business, and how to register their enterprise.

Recently, internal assessors conducted five focus-group discussions and 17 individual interviews and found:

  • Recipients reported improved levels of self-confidence as the result of their management capacity.
  • All the interviewees stated they have gained a greater decision-making role within their families.
  • Ninety-four percent say the additional income has enabled them to improve the education and nutrition of their children.

What's more, the women have proved to be worthy creditors: less than 3 percent of loans are in default.

Growing a Business

Not being able to pay off the loan was Maria's chief worry in August 2005, when she chose to open a small food stand to serve the scattered families of her village. Her husband and her sons work on the large plantations nearby, and on their own land they grow a little bit of coffee and cardamom, and beans and corn. "We made very little money," she says.

Her husband walled off a portion of their modest mud-walled home, making essentially a attached kiosk that enabled Maria to sell goods out of an open window. From there she sells food staples such as sugar, salt, ham, pasta, sodas, and ingredients for making tortillas.

A little more than two years after her first sale, what she makes from the tienda exceeds what her husband takes home from his work. "I used the profits to buy more stock and to buy things like sugar and coffee for the family."

It's a line of work that suits her well, she says. "I'm content. No one gives me orders. The only thing I'm thinking about now," she says, "is more capital."

Spoken like a true entrepreneur.