As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8th, I have been thinking about the term “Women’s Empowerment” and how subjective it is to privilege, culture, and individual circumstances.
For example, one of my girlfriends in San Francisco considers Cross-Fit empowering, whereas I find it to be torturous. For the Guatemalan women in Namaste’s program, who face a daily onslaught of challenges inherent to living in poverty, and pervasive gender-based discrimination, empowerment looks less like Cross-Fit and more like the ability to earn a livable wage.
During my visit to Guatemala last month, our program team took me, along with a group of Rotarians from Canada, to visit several of Namaste’s clients in the departments of Sacatepequez and Chimaltenango. As we met each client, I wondered if Namaste’s program could empower each of them, despite their different circumstances and stages of growth.
The first client we visited, Carmen, has participated in six cycles of our Creating Prosperity Program with great success. Carmen confidently welcomed our group to her well-appointed home, where she lives with her husband, just outside of the tourist mecca of Antigua. As she told us about her plans to launch her fourth business venture, I was struck by how affluent and ambitious she seemed in comparison to the other Namaste clients I’ve met. It was clear that Carmen’s financial stability offered a foundation for her to be more creative and bold in her business endeavors.
Carmen’s new business is making and selling baked goods for people dietary restrictions (e.g., diabetes, gluten intolerance, vegans). Inspired by her mother, who is diabetic and loves bread, Carmen’s dream is to make delicious low-sugar/low-carb baked goods to cater to tourists and the growing percentage of diabetics in the country. With the guidance of her Business Advisor, a new business planning app, and a loan (all provided by Namaste), Carmen is on her way to making her dream a reality.
Our next visit was with Blanca, a single mother, enrolled in Cycle 3 of Namaste’s Creating Prosperity Program. When we arrived at her small convenience store in Jocotenango, Blanca was busy helping customers operate a large machine in the corner of her shop. Our group looked on curiously, huddled beside a line of local women who waited to use the machine to grind masa to make tortillas. After she helped her customers, Blanca explained that while the sales from her shop were slow, she was able to purchase the machine with Namaste’s support to supplement her income. When she entered Namaste’s program in 2018, she was earning Q600 in net profits, and today her net profits are Q5,300.
The last client we visited, Teresa, lives in the dusty region of Tejar in Chimaltenango. Teresa is a widow, and though she only has a first-grade education, she managed to start a small shop that sells snacks, sodas, and miscellaneous personal items to support herself.
Standing in the cluttered, dank storage room behind her store, with a group of gringos, who, like me, were eager to hear Teresa talk about her plans for growing her business – her anxiety was palpable. She fidgeted as she told us that she joined Namaste’s Creating Prosperity Program two months ago, in hopes of growing her inventory and earning more money. Her Business Advisor added that they had already identified several tactics that would be critical in helping her increase her profits.
When our group asked about her dreams for the future, Teresa was flummoxed. Her silence suggested that no one had ever asked her that before. Unlike the other clients we visited that day who were further along in Namaste’s program, and in a stronger financial position, Teresa seemed far more focused on survival than dreaming about the future.
As our van bounced over the potholed roads back to Antigua, I reflected on the various goals and circumstances of the clients we’d visited and how Namaste’s program supports their respective paths to empowerment. Empowerment is defined as the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights. For Carmen, that path is opening her fourth business, for Blanca, the path is developing a new revenue stream, and for Teresa, it is acquiring fundamental skills and resources to build a profitable business that will sustain her throughout her life. Women’s Empowerment is intrinsic to Namaste’s work and I am proud to be a part of that.