An Economic Bridge to Gender Equity in Guatemala
Karen Larson meets with Karen, the daughter
of a Friendship Bridge client.
By Karen Larson, executive director of Friendship Bridge
Consider a few facts related to women’s equity:
Fact: Women constitute 49 percent of the world’s population, but only 52 percent of women participate in the global work force (International Labour Organization 2009). Thus a large portion of the world’s population—about 25 percent—is excluded from the labor economy. According to Sandra Lawson, “Narrowing the gender gap in employment—which is one potential consequence of expanded female education—could push income per capita as much as 14 percent higher than our baseline projections by 2020, and as much as 20 percent higher by 2030” (2008, 1).
Fact: A positive correlation exists between a country’s commitment to women’s rights and gender equity and its Gross National Product (GNP). The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific points to the relationship between women’s workforce participation and higher GNP, noting in the case of India that “a 10 percent permanent increase in female participation would mean a gain of…$5 billion a year” (2007, 104).
Fact: Where women have more equity as income producers, their children are better educated and healthier. Ann M. Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, states that “Gender equality and the well-being of children are inextricably linked. When women are empowered to lead full and productive lives, children and families prosper” (UNICEF 2006). Similarly, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright cites the economic benefits of investing in women, pointing out that women reinvest 90 percent of their income in their families and communities, while men reinvest only 30 to 40 percent (Albright 2007).
Given the facts, it is no wonder that so many organizations around the world recognize investing in gender equality as the solution to many of the world’s problems.
The Millennium Development Goals
In September 2000, the United Nations convened for a Millennium Summit that included 189 heads of states and governments from around the world. This group acknowledged the global impact of the more than one billion people—many of whom are women—who live in extreme poverty and experience significant human rights violations. They developed a global partnership to work toward eight specific goals that would positively affect the environment for human rights. This was the genesis of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) 2015.
The third Millennium Development Goal is “gender equality and women’s empowerment,” described by the United Nations Millennium Campaign in the following terms:
Poverty has a woman's face. Global prosperity and peace will only be achieved once all the world's people are empowered to order their own lives and provide for themselves and their families. Societies where women are more equal stand a much greater chance of achieving the Millennium Goals by 2015. Every single Goal is directly related to women's rights, and societies where women are not afforded equal rights as men can never achieve development in a sustainable manner. (n.d.)
The MDG goals are lofty, but would have a greater chance of success if women had equal rights. Imagine a world where 100 percent of citizens were empowered to contribute to the well-being of others and especially of the next generation.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn advocate liberating women from poverty as the precise solution to many of the world’s most daunting problems. They identify microcredit as a proven tool for successful and sustainable development (2009). If used productively, microcredit empowers women, improves their families’ health and well-being, increases girls’ presence in and commitment to school, and ultimately breaks the cycle of poverty for the next generation.
Friendship Bridge, a nonprofit charitable organization, extends microcredit programs to twelve thousand customers in rural Guatemala. Through our microcredit program, Microcredit Plus, we deliver small loans to impoverished women to support their business enterprises in tandem with educational initiatives that teach not only important business skills, but also lessons in health, nutrition, and reproductive and other women’s rights. Our customers are predominately Mayan women whose lives are subject to the consequences of extreme underdevelopment, including limited public services related to health, education, and other basic human needs. These women live in an environment where being both Mayan and female places them at the bottom of the pecking order.
Challenges in Guatemala
Guatemala is known for its vibrant, diverse population and the natural beauty of its rugged highlands, impressive volcanoes, and Mayan ruins. But roughly 50 percent of Guatemala’s population lives in the country’s rural areas and are what the World Bank defines as poor or extremely poor (meaning they live on less than one U.S. dollar a day). Natural disasters including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and hurricanes wreak havoc in these rural areas. In addition, a forty-year period of social unrest, violence, and civil war stretching from 1956 to 1996 resulted in an estimated loss of one million people and made an already difficult life even harder. As in so many underdeveloped countries, the government suffers from corruption at many levels. Unless the local governments or international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) sponsor projects to provide basic public services, people living in rural Guatemala lack many things people in the United States take for granted: clean water, public education, public transportation, roads and walkways, sanitation services, plumbing, and electricity. Guatemala is also a major staging area for drug trafficking and human trafficking, especially of women and children to Mexico and the United States (Central Intelligence Agency n.d.).
While these hardships affect the entire poor and rural population, women in particular endure great adversity due in part to the country’s “machismo” culture. Alcoholism, domestic violence, and infidelity escalate complications for women already enduring multiple stresses. About 70 percent of Mayan women in Guatemala are illiterate, and only 20 percent have completed the sixth grade. Women often marry early and have children at a young age. Rural indigenous women in the Guatemalan highlands have an average of 6.2 children whom they must support (World Health Organization 2007). Language adds an additional barrier to women’s economic participation. The Guatemalan people speak twenty-two recognized languages in addition to Spanish, and many rural women in particular speak only their indigenous language, making travel and business negotiations difficult. The imbalance of domestic responsibilities, educational privileges, and overall rights creates significant health and economic burdens for women.
Unleashing Women’s Potential
Despite the challenges, Guatemalan women are amazingly resourceful. With a little support (a “hand up,” not a handout) from organizations like Friendship Bridge, their achievements are extraordinary. Large numbers of rural Guatemalan women have created successful microenterprises, including weaving and textile businesses, animal husbandry and agricultural services, tortilla-making businesses, and small stores and restaurants. In many cases, these women become a significant or sole income provider for their families. Microcredit gives women the resources and freedom to make a difference in their lives and those of their families by protecting their health and that of their children, building better homes, and improving sanitary conditions. Importantly, more girls and boys now attend school as a result of their mothers’ influence (Friendship Bridge Impact Studies; Consultative Group to Assist the Poor 2010).
Friendship Bridge bases its programs on the Grameen approach developed by Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. We provide loans and education to the women of Guatemala so they can create their own solutions to poverty. The Grameen approach turns conventional banking upside down. We bring the service to the client’s doorstep, rather than requiring the client to come to us. In addition, no traditional collateral is required. Instead, the loans build on social collateral, with groups of women guaranteeing each other’s loans. Each group of women, or Trust Bank, focuses on building leadership skills and accountability, forming a board of directors with a president, vice president, and treasurer. Participants take these roles seriously: they are the mechanism through which the group collects loan payments, takes action for nonpayment, and shares the education gained through Friendship Bridge’s programs.
Finding ways to teach adults who have never had formal education and are predominantly preliterate can be a challenge. But our clients are so eager to learn that they have participated in developing Friendship Bridge’s non-formal educational (NFE) program. Working with the women, we created a curriculum together with topics including My Money, My Business, My Health, and Self-Esteem. We present these topics through Rotafolios, or flip charts, that use illustrations and photographs rather than words to deliver messages that resonate with the women. We conduct these non-formal educational sessions at monthly repayment meetings. Combined with Friendship Bridge’s loan program, the education curriculum empowers women to gain practical knowledge and expertise. In addition, the network that exists within the Trust Banks offers an avenue for the women to learn and share amongst themselves. Thus Friendship Bridge merely facilitates women learning to make decisions and find solutions together.
In this system, microcredit and education function not as charitable gifts but rather as tools that help unleash women’s potential, freeing them from the institutional, cultural, and political barriers that prevent them from fully contributing as citizens. The program works because it hinges on a group of women who support and learn from each other. It helps women build self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect and enables women to make choices for themselves. It offers the benefits of life in a society where gender equality exists.
One final fact: Investing in women’s empowerment through microcredit and education programs is good for government, good for world economics, good for citizens, and good for the next generation. As Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, has said, "It is impossible to realize our goals while discriminating against half the human race. As study after study has taught us, there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women" (Kristof and WuDunn 2009, 185).
To learn more about Friendship Bridge, visit www.friendshipbridge.org.
Albright, M. K. 2007. Foreword to Women empowered: Inspiring change in the emerging world by Phil Borges. New York: Rizzoli.
Central Intelligence Agency. n.d. Gautemala. World Factbook. www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gt.html
Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. 2010. How do financial services help the poor? www.cgap.org/p/site/c/template.rc/1.26.1305/
Friendship Bridge Impact Studies. n.d. Unpublished internal document.
International Labour Organization. 2009. Global employment trends for women: March 2009. Geneva: International Labour Organization. www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_103456.pdf
Kristof, N., and S. WuDunn. 2009. Half the sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Lawson, S. 2008. Women hold up half the sky. Global Economics Paper 164. New York: Goldman Sachs Group. www2.goldmansachs.com/ideas/demographic-change/women-hold-up-half-of-the-sky.pdf.
United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. 2007. India: Briefing notes for the launch in New Delhi, April 2007. www.unescap.org/survey2007/notes/india.pdf
United Nations Millennium Campaign. n.d. www.endpoverty2015.org.
UNICEF. 2006. Empower women to help children. Press release, December 11. New York/Geneva. www.unicef.org/media/media_37474.html.
World Health Organization. 2007. Guatemala: Country cooperation strategy at a glance. www.who.int/countryfocus/cooperation_strategy/ccsbrief_gtm_en.pdf