Women of the Western Highlands

By and large women have a tough time in Guatemala. Machismo is an expected character trait for a Guatemalan man, and women are widely discriminated against in personal and professional life. Many are trapped doing housework whether they like it or not.

The situation is especially pronounced in the countryside where the average birth rate for rural women is almost seven children, the highest in Latin America. This seems to be improving, but slowly. At the school a midwife working in indigenous communities gave a talk, she said that is was not uncommon to have 12 or more children in a family. My Spanish teacher has 17 brothers and sisters! The midwife also said that girls as young as 13 often give birth in the pueblos – she very rarely assists any women older than their mid-20s. That’s pretty shocking stuff.

Even more shocking, there are high rates of femicide mixed up with gang violence. There is no effective law against rape. In 2008 after intense lobbying from womens’ rights groups a law was finally passed to deal with the issue of femicide. It is still a problem.

In 1992, Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize. A K’iche’ woman from Guatemala she worked, and is still working, to promote indigenous rights, especially the rights of women.

Some more stats. Up to 87% of indigenous women are illiterate. With a national average of four years completed schooling per person this is hardly surprising. According to the UN Development Report, 2010 just 34% of the population is in secure employment. 55% are ‘vulnerably’ employed.

Many rural communities rely on subsistence farming. The whole family often participates in the running of a small farm but the income is not fairly distributed. Machismo strikes again. However, here in Xela there are organisations that are trying to help. Principally assisting groups of women with fantastic talents to access markets for their value-added goods.

In some cases NGOs are helping women to process agricultural products often purchased from their communities, or even their husbands. These products are typically fruits to make into jams and syrups, or wool and cotton to be weaved into clothes, tablecloths, blankets, etc. The women are then able to sell these things at a profit and gain power and respect in the family and community, little by little.

Some of the organisations, (and websites if they have them), are:

Trama Textiles – a weaving cooperative of 400 women selling goods that use only natural fabrics and dyes. They also run a weaving school. There are many of these cooperatives throughout the Western Highlands. We visited another in San Jose, on the shores of Lake Atitlan. The old lady who ran the shop had learned to weave when she was six years old. The textiles were amazing.

Al-Natur – a cafe and shop selling fair trade and organic goods from the Quetzaltenango area. I think that they also assist with various support projects, helping to fund the work of women, as well as providing an outlet for their products. Cafe R.E.D. is similar.

Manos Creativos – I met someone working voluntarily on this project. A girl from Northern Ireland, running workshops for women in the pueblos showing them various ways to start small businesses and earn a living wage from their talents.

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