Indigenous women of Guatemala’s Polochic valley are feeding their families, growing their businesses and saving more money than ever before, with the help of a joint UN program that’s empowering rural women.
The women of Puente Viejo, a small indigenous community across the Polochic and Malazas rivers in the Polochic valley of Guatemala are happy. For once, they have plenty of crops to feed themselves and their families, and they have saved more money than ever before from their organic shampoo sales.
There are no paved roads that go to Puente Viejo. The mostly agrarian indigenous community relies on wooden canoes to transport their products or to access services. The women are part of a joint program by UN Women, World Food Program (WFP), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which is empowering more than 1,600 rural women to become economically self-reliant across the department of Alta Varapaz and the municipalities of Tucurú, La Tinta and Panzos.
“I joined this group because I saw the need in my household,” says 55-year-old Candelaria Pec. “With the assistance of the project, we have started growing crops, improved our living conditions.”
The program has also shifted attitudes of male family members. “At home, women used to do all the domestic work, and we were exhausted of having to do all the work by ourselves. But now we have divided the chores at home. Men and women work equally now. The men go to fetch wood, clean the crops, and we cook and prepare food, but also grow vegetables and make shampoo,” added Pec.
While the results are significant, the path to getting here, has been arduous. In Puente Viejo, in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture, the joint program had first started with only 12 women farmers, providing them with seeds and fertilizers, as well as training on agricultural techniques. Then came the floods in 2017, washing away the small gains. The changing climate, combined with loss of trees and the advent of hydro-electric projects, have changed the course of the rivers. Every year, the floods are becoming more frequent and more devastating.
“The floods are increasing now,” said Carlota Sam Pac, who leads the women’s group in Puente Viejo. “It’s difficult to negotiate good prices for our products because the canoes cannot cross the river when the river is so high. When the water starts rising, we go to the school building for protection.”
At age 36, Sam Pac already has seven children to feed. The project needed to shift its focus to train women in other skills to help them diversify their incomes and to build resilience.
Since last year, the project has focused on teaching women to make and market organic shampoo using the ingredients readily available in their farms and garden. The women learned to produce shampoo in bigger batches and in different varieties—such as aloe, cacao, avocado and honey—and sell them in local markets. UN Women also recruited a marketing company to help with the branding and packaging of the shampoo. The shampoo business has taken off in a relatively short period of time, and the Puente Viejo women’s group has also learned financial skills and set up a small savings and loans group, with the assistance of a partner organization, Programa de Desarrollo Rural para la Región Norte (PRODENORTE).
“For 1 litre of shampoo, we can get 30 Quetzals,” said Carlotta Sam Pac. “We maintain an accounting book, where we register (each individual group member’s) income, spending and balance. We are saving to have more capital and to produce more shampoo. I used to sell shampoo only within the community. Now we can make better products and sell them in Tucurú and other markets.”
Within a year, the women’s group have made 1,000 Quetzals in interest through the savings and loans group.
“Our husbands have no savings,” confided Carlotta Sam Pac. “They give us some money to buy our own things, but now we have learned to save from that too!”
“Our husbands now understand that we can also be managers of our own money. With our money, we can help our household economy. They know we are now aware of our economic rights and they don’t mistreat us anymore,” she added.
The joy and team spirit is palpable among the women gathered around Sam Pac’s porch. The money they have collectively saved is particularly handy when tragedy or disaster strikes. The savings fund is also used to give low-interest loans to members of the group and their families. Carlotta Sam Pac’s daughter is studying in the university and needed some money for her education expenses this year. She asked for a credit from the women’s group and got a small loan with a low interest rate. It’s a win-win situation, everyone is happy that the money stays in the community.
With increased savings and a diversified income strategy, there’s more food security in the community. The women don’t have to sell as much crops as they did before and can keep more for consumption.
“We grow our food and it’s the best food that we can consume,” said Angelina Tut, another member of the women’s group. “See this honey—we got it from our bees—taste it with this bread, we baked it ourselves.”
Carlotta Sam Pac spreads the honey generously on a loaf of bread and adds, “I would rather have my children eat what I produce than sell the produce.”
According to Eugenia Close, UN Women’s Economic Empowerment Coordinator in Guatemala, “the most important aspect of the joint program is how it has brought together UN agencies and local partners to contribute their unique expertise to close the gaps that rural women often face—from providing them with seeds and fertilizers to expanding their skills and access to markets. Most importantly, the program is empowering women to take charge of their own lives, build their own enterprises and manage their own finances.” The project has empowered more than 1,600 indigenous rural women in Guatemala, and 135 of them are now leading their own organizations.
The rains will come in a few months, and the rivers may swell and spill over again. The women of Puente Viejo are more prepared this year. Their bags are packed with some necessities, their savings and accounting books are in a box. For now, they are enjoying the fruits of their labour and dreaming of more savings.
The Joint Program on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women by FAO, WFP, IFAD and UN Women is working to advance advance gender equality and economic empowerment of women in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Nepal, Niger and Rwanda. In Guatemala, the program started in 2015, with funding from Norway and Sweden, supporting rural women to develop a range of skills, from sustainable agricultural practices to marketing organic shampoo and learning solar engineering. With better knowledge of their own rights and access to skills, credit and income, women participants can make more decisions within their homes and participate in municipal spaces