Boosting incomes and hope in rural Mexico and Central America

Date: Friday, June 3, 2016

A day in the life of…”, an editorial series, provides a glimpse into the daily work and challenges that UN Women staff face in the field. 
María José Schaeffer taking part on a learning journey with women entrepreneurs on the Joint Programme on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women in Ethiopia (2015), implemented by FAO, IFAD, WFP and UN Women in seven countries: Guatemala, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Nepal, Nigeria and Rwanda. Photo: UN Women.
María José Schaeffer taking part on a learning journey with women entrepreneurs on the Joint Programme on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women in Ethiopia (2015), implemented by FAO, IFAD, WFP and UN Women in seven countries: Guatemala, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Nepal, Nigeria and Rwanda. Photo: UN Women.

María José Schaeffer, a 30-year-old Guatemalan, is a Programme Analyst for UN Women. She coordinates the implementation of the multi-country programme “Broadening Economic Opportunities for Rural Women Entrepreneurs in Latin America” (El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua) funded by UN Women and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), as well as the “Joint Programme on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women in Guatemala”, funded by Norway and Sweden through the Multi-Partner Trust Fund. Before joining UN Women in January 2014, María José worked as a macroeconomics and rural development consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank and IFAD.

Contributing to women´s economic empowerment in order to fuel development in rural areas has been a truly rewarding experience for me. Among green landscapes and picturesque roads, communities full of customs and ancestral wisdom—and, most of all, brave, visionary women entrepreneurs—my days abound with energy. Together with the UN Women’s economic empowerment teams in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, we have contributed through the design and implementation of programmes so that more than 4,500 rural women can improve their access to productive resources and economic opportunities, and develop greater leadership within their organizations and communities.

A day in my life often looks like this…

It’s Wednesday morning and I’m ready to start a monitoring mission to the Valles Centrales and Sierra Norte regions of the State of Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca is the most rural State in the country, with poverty affecting 66.8 per cent of the population and 77.9 per cent without access to social security. The purpose of our programme is to meet with entrepreneurs involved in the “Broadening Economic Opportunities for Rural Women Entrepreneurs in Latin America” programme, to learn how UN Women’s support has made an impact and transformed their lives through innovative actions, which are unique, as they strengthen productive organizations, but primarily seek the holistic development of women.

María José Schaeffer participating in a work group with rural women entrepreneurs during a dissemination workshop for the “Broadening Economic Opportunities for Rural Women Entrepreneurs in Latin America” programme. Chiquimula, Guatemala (2016). Photo: UN Women/Alejandro De León.
María José Schaeffer participating in a work group with rural women entrepreneurs during a dissemination workshop for the “Broadening Economic Opportunities for Rural Women Entrepreneurs in Latin America” programme. Chiquimula, Guatemala (2016). Photo: UN Women/Alejandro De León.

The visit starts with the "Wool Road" in Teotitlán del Valle, where members of Manos Entretejidas-Galvain Cuy (Interwoven hands-New Life) and Mujeres que Tejen el Telar de Pedal (Female Pedal Loom Weavers) welcome us with a smile and freshly-squeezed orange juice. We start off by visiting the carpentry shop where they are building pedal looms, funded by our programme. Very soon each one of the women will have her own loom to work on, which will help them use their time more efficiently.

Next, we go to the home of one of the Galvain Cuy members, where they give us a step-by-step explanation of the production process that adds values to woollen items, from the natural dyeing of yarn with indigo and cochineal through to the meanings of the designs in the Zapotec culture.

Our visit ends with some music. Members of Mujeres que Tejen el Telar de Pedal perform a song they wrote, summarizing the new knowledge gained through human rights and empowerment training, which was developed with our programme's support. The lyrics translate as: "Our rights, our rights, we're here to claim, so that the ones that govern us can hear us today; we are entrepreneur women who want to work; we need a space to display our products … courses and training so we can designand not just cook recipes. Our rights, our rights..."

Women beekeepers involved in the “Broadening Economic Opportunities for Rural Women Entrepreneurs in Latin America” programme take María José Schaeffer to their hives for a demonstration of honey extraction. Jalapa, Guatemala (2016). Photo: UN Women/Alejandro De León.
Women beekeepers involved in the “Broadening Economic Opportunities for Rural Women Entrepreneurs in Latin America” programme take María José Schaeffer to their hives for a demonstration of honey extraction. Jalapa, Guatemala (2016). Photo: UN Women/Alejandro De León.

We continue on our way to the "Silk Road" in San Pedro Cajonos. Members of Flor de Morera (Mulberry Flower), Rebozo Arte y Encanto (Shawls, Art and Charm) and Tap Dia (Four Generations) invite us to visit their mulberry tree plantations where silkworms grow. While some women make shawls on their looms, others explain how their mothers and grandmothers taught them to weave.

The women tell us how, as a result of the market research supported by our programme, they have diversified their products to access new markets. Luxury handmade silk shawls are aimed at a small market segment that recognizes and values this local craft. This is why some women, and youth in particular, are also venturing into expanding, through silk jewellery. This has been a great innovation as many tourists want to take home a Oaxacan handmade silk souvenir.

María José Schaeffer listening to the life stories of rural women entrepreneurs in Jalapa, Chiquimula and Izabal, Guatemala (2016). Photo: UN Women/Alejandro De León.
María José Schaeffer listening to the life stories of rural women entrepreneurs in Jalapa, Chiquimula and Izabal, Guatemala (2016). Photo: UN Women/Alejandro De León.

The last stop of the day is Casa de Barro (House of Clay) in Santa María Tavehua and, as its name suggests so well, the headquarters of the organization is a two-floor adobe house with clay animal sculptures adorning its walls and ceiling.

The organization has acquired a gas oven, technology with a positive environmental impact that improves the quality of their works and reduces losses and time.

Elsa González, President of the organization, tells us about the changes in her life thanks to our support. “The programme supported us with training, equipment and construction of a safe kitchen in Casa de Barro, which allows us to have our daughters and sons at our place of work, and prepare meals there, saving time because we don't have to travel home several times a day now.”

Night is starting to fall as we bid farewell to the women and start our journey to Capulálpam de Méndez, where we will spend the night. On the way, I observe the infinite horizon of the Oaxacan Sierra and feel grateful for the opportunity to meet such marvellous women and learn from the wisdom of their peoples. These women's lives are being transformed and I, too, have been transformed. I now feel that I am more empowered and have a stronger voice on this journey towards achieving women's rights. 

There are still considerable challenges to face: women need access to productive resources—mainly land—and they need to take their own decisions and live lives free from violence. We need to add more allies in this effort so that the economic empowerment of women becomes a living reality. Motivated with renewed zeal by the visit, it’s time to return to the office in Guatemala.

María José Schaeffer (standing, centre) with the “Broadening Economic Opportunities for Rural Women Entrepreneurs in Latin America” team: Carolina Salazar, Rodrigo Pérez, Michelle De León, Maurens Figueroa and Ninoska Hurtado (2014). Photo: UN Women.
María José Schaeffer (standing, centre) with the “Broadening Economic Opportunities for Rural Women Entrepreneurs in Latin America” team: Carolina Salazar, Rodrigo Pérez, Michelle De León, Maurens Figueroa and Ninoska Hurtado (2014). Photo: UN Women.