Today is the United Nations ‘International Day of Rural Women’. It is an opportunity for us to recognise “the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty” – UN General Assembly.
Here we will do exactly that; recognise the achievements of an inspiring woman, Mildred Santos Barrera, 37 years old, and a lifelong resident of El Paredon, Guatemala. Mildred attended primary school up to sixth grade, and like the majority of her female classmates left the education system at this stage. She is the mother to two boys and a girl and wife to a local fisherman.
A day in the life of…
Mildred gets up with the sun at five-thirty am, making a fire, preparing the food and cleaning her home. In the afternoon she joins two other women, Sandra and Angelina, to create bags and clothes out of up-cycled materials to sell as part of a project with La Choza Chula.
At five o’clock in the afternoon she sets up an open heart fire on the edge of the basket ball court, selling her home-made food – filled tortillas, tostadas, empanadas and other tasty snacks, to locals and tourists alike. When the food runs out she can finally put her feet up. All in a day’s work!
Mildred the entrepreneur…
Mildred grew up around the sights, sounds and smells of her mother’s busy kitchen, where she learned the basics. By the time she turned 25 she was ready to go it alone and decided to start her own small business.
El Paredon is a small community and there are not many opportunities for young people looking for employment. Mildred says, ‘this village is very small and there are no big businesses providing jobs. So you have to find your own way to support yourself and your family and move forward.’ Why a food business? – ‘Because it’s what I like most! And once anyone tries my food they always leave happy!’
This combination of entrepreneurial flare and passion for cooking can only be a recipe for success for Mildred’s budding business. Gradually she has increased her menu and during big events she has to enlist the help of her mother, sister and daughter.
‘The business is really important to us because if I don’t work then there is less money coming in to support my family. I want to grow the business and have my own place in a more central location so that I don’t have to keep carrying the equipment to and fro every time I want to sell.’
Female entrepreneurs and leaders like Mildred do exist in El Paredon but women often find themselves presented with fewer opportunities and more closed doors from an early age. Mildred speaks of a gender inequality that is prevalent right from her school days, ‘For girls it’s more difficult. It is more common for boys to continue studying after primary school for example. The boys can defend themselves easier and there are more opportunities open to them than the girls. That’s just the reality here.’
Unfortunately this is the reality for women and girls in many developing countries around the world, particularly in rural areas. However, Mildred hopes for a better future for her village, ‘I think it should be equal for everyone. We are all striving for the same thing – to better ourselves each and every day.’
At La Choza Chula we share that vision. Mildred and two other entrepreneurial, talented women, Sandra and Angelina have been working with us for one year now, making hand-crafted bags and clothes for sale. The ladies had taken a course in sewing a few years ago but never had the opportunity to use the skills professionally. The project has enabled the women to learn about quality control systems, team work and leadership, while doing something they love to do.
‘You see other people doing things like this, but you never imagine you can do them yourself! I feel blessed to be a part of this project. The extra income benefits my family greatly.’
Other members of the community have been encouraged and inspired by what the three women are doing.
‘People have said that the products we make look great – for example the t-shirt is just a normal t-shirt but to see it with a cultural feature looks really smart.’ For Mildred the future of the project looks bright. She is hoping the sales continue to grow and they keep learning and improving along the way.
As well as continuing to work with Mildred and her two colleagues on the Bag Project, La Choza Chula is dedicated to improving the lives of all girls and women in El Paredon. Together with Surf for Life, we have built a new secondary school, where boys and girls alike can learn and play in a safe environment. We have constructed the Buena Vista Bibliotech– village’s first community library, and developed a creative literacy programme along with a ‘Mummy and Me’ programme, in which mothers bring their children and take part in activities and workshops that aim to give the young ones a head start at school.
Monica, a local mum, explains, ‘I never have time to play like this at home. I’m always so busy cooking, cleaning, working…there’s just no time. It’s also a chance to catch up with the other mums too. It’s great!’
The future’s bright…
In 2016 we will be implementing a new entrepreneurship training programme in El Paredon, aimed specifically at enterprising women and young people. We will be delivering training and mentoring to a group of entrepreneurs with the aim of increasing the number of female and youth-led enterprises in El Paredon. Entrepreneurs like Mildred will have the opportunity to learn the skills needed to take their businesses to the next level while receiving guidance and support from La Choza Chula staff and volunteers.
As the UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-Moon, says, ‘The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have gender and equality and women’s empowerment at their core. Indeed, rural women are critical to the success of almost all of the 17 SDGs”
Women like Mildred are vitally important not only to their families, but to their communities at large. In order to develop as a community and as a planet, we need to provide these women with equal opportunities to use their talents and skills to be able to improve their lives and the lives of their families, which will in turn contribute to the sustainable development of their communities.