Since March 2020, Guatemala has recorded more than 600 COVID-19 deaths and over 11,000 infections. Amidst this crisis, indigenous women have continued to use their voices, knowledge and capacities to assist their communities and adapt their livelihoods. To build back better, their needs and concerns, but also their leadership must be placed at the centre of COVID-19 recovery plans.
María Tuyuc, 47, believes economic empowerment is key to transforming the discrimination and deficits that indigenous women continue to face in Guatemala. “Less access to services, particularly to education, limits their possibilities for employment and income,” she says.
The lack of economic autonomy also prevents them from escaping violence, she adds: “the majority of women who tolerate violence or do not pursue justice through the court system, often do so because they lack economic independence”.
Conversely, boosting indigenous women’s entrepreneurial abilities can be transformative for them and their communities, and by extension, the entire country. “Economic empowerment allows them to believe in and value their own knowledge and capacities,” highlights Tuyuc, who founded the Global Network of Indigenous Businesses. “They have developed their own business models, establishing their own entrepreneurial networks, and in secured access to markets to sell and export their products.”
Through this Network, and its Mayan School of Business, Tuyuc supports indigenous communities –particularly women – to grow their businesses and improve their value chains for better income.
Resilience comes from learning and adapting to the new reality
Indigenous businesses and women-led enterprises have been hit hard by the new coronavirus pandemic. “A large number of small and big companies are facing closures, and with that, indigenous entrepreneurs are losing their businesses, which affects the community-based production chains that provide livelihoods for hundreds of families,” Tuyuc further explains.
She also says tourism, textiles, agro-industry and handicrafts – sectors where indigenous women have traditionally participated – are among the worst hit by the pandemic. But despite the challenges, indigenous women continue to learn and adapt to the circumstances.
“I have been impressed by their ability to adapt. A woman in Totonicapan [in Guatemala’s western region] used to make crates but has now started selling fruits and vegetables. Others have taken advantage of the emergency to improve their sales strategies or have improved their products through innovation,” Tuyuc shares.
Rebuilding back better, for María Tuyuc and other indigenous leaders means putting indigenous women at the centre of efforts, going beyond emergency relief and assistance, and focusing on strengthening their economic empowerment.
Indigenous women on the front lines of protecting their communities
In terms of community-based solutions to the unfolding health and economic crisis, indigenous women are already ahead of many.
Otilia Lux, a former Minister and member of UN Women’s Civil Society Advisory Group, says that several women in indigenous communities have turned to traditional knowledge and practices in the context of COVID-19. These include, for example, using family orchard production to provide food for their families or engaging in solidarity exchanges within their communities to ensure everyone has their basic needs covered.
“COVID has brought fear, but women have responded by connecting to Mother Earth, to the teachings of their ancestors, by renewing the use of natural medicine, and by leading with wisdom,” Lux said at a dialogue with indigenous leaders held by UN Women.
“[Indigenous] Communities have always known how to move forward in the face of adversities,” added Rosalina Tuyuc, a human rights activist and co-founder of a widows’ association in Guatemala.
UN Women and partners are bringing the voices and experiences of indigenous women at the forefront of COVID-19 prevention and response to strengthen collaboration with indigenous communities.
Aligning national priorities with indigenous women’s needs and capacities
“The pandemic comes at a moment in which women’s economic empowerment is at the centre of the national agenda,” says Adriana Quiñones, UN Women Representative in Guatemala.
“With the recent launch of the National Coalition for the Economic Empowerment of Women – a multi-stakeholder alliance led by the Government of Guatemala and UN Women – we have an opportunity to generate synergies between several actions and create transformative impact on indigenous women’s livelihoods.”
Set up shortly before the outbreak of COVID-19 in Guatemala, the Coalition aims to generate better economic opportunities for women in business. It also seeks to address the barriers limiting women’s participation in the economy, such as the disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work that they usually perform.
Indigenous women are a priority for these efforts to bear fruit. A significant proportion – 79 per cent of the country’s indigenous peoples live in poverty. Women continue to face the largest burden of unpaid care and domestic work, which prevents them from fully participating in the formal economy – only 1 in 10 indigenous women do paid work– and even when they do, they earn 19 per cent less than non-indigenous women.
Even as the challenges brought on by the pandemic remain daunting, focusing on indigenous communities can unlock important development opportunities.
“This is the beginning of a long-term effort to address the most important development challenges, based on the idea that women not only improve their livelihoods when they become empowered, but that this has a positive impact in their families, communities, and the country,” argues Minister of Economy, Antonio Malouf, who coordinates the work of the Coalition.
“Leveraging the experiences of indigenous leaders is essential to the work of the National Coalition,” Ms. Quiñones explains. “This is an invaluable opportunity to listen to indigenous women’s contributions and find ways to support and scale-up the transformative work they do in their communities.”