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Building Indigenous Women’s Leadership – One, two, five women at a time

May 2009

My colleague Saulo Araujo and I were recently in Guatemala visiting our partner CONIC (National Coordination of Indigenous Peoples & Campesinos). CONIC’s staff took us to visit a local community they have been working with in the village of Cocorval, in the Department of Chimaltenango, over an hour’s drive from Guatemala City on a “chicken bus.”

Grassroots International has supported a CONIC cooperative project in a different region of Guatemala, on the other side of Lake Atitlan from Cocorval. The women we met knew that but were quick to appreciate our support for CONIC (and to remind their neighbors) that Grassroots’ support for CONIC means that their village benefits as well, even if indirectly, through the technical assistance they get from the CONIC staff.

The women of the community banded together 12 years ago to form a cooperative – Juno Qawach – to advocate for better services from the government, such as credit. Marcelina Sirien Xinico and Esteban Maroquin Sirin (Esteban is a woman), who are on the Board of the cooperative told us that they grow broccoli, cabbage, and beans, working with the men of their village. But, they said quickly, the leadership of the cooperative is all women, and so are almost all of the 200 or so members.

Their cooperative is one of the many that CONIC works with across the country, providing technical assistance on agroecology, political education, credit and financial assistance, leadership development and advocacy. Saulo and I talked with Marcelina and Esteban about why they decided to form a cooperative and work with CONIC.

Marcelina: I had a lot of personal problems with my husband who was an alcoholic and I needed to make sure we had enough for our children. So I talked to my neighbors like Esteban as I felt it would be better for us to work together, and that way we might have a better chance of being heard and having our problems solved. So we got about 15-20 women together.

Esteban: I believe we need to have a better life for ourselves and our community. We often had lots of arguments in the family because we lacked resources and that affected the way we were with each other. So, I decided to be proactive and do something about it and to change things.

Marcelina: One of our main goals was to advocate for our rights with the government. The government has programs to benefit the community but unless we know what they are and how we can avail of them no one is going to hand them to us on a platter. Alvaro Colom (the president) came here during the elections and made many promises but then we didn’t see anything since the elections. But since we registered as a cooperative, mobilized our people and applied for programs we are eligible for, we’ve been more successful. And now, we even have a roof on our community center.

Esteban: Most of the women in the village and this region make artisanal crafts, like the traditional huipils. But we need credit for getting the things we need to make them. Some of the women know how to weave, while others know the designs, and so we collaborate to make the huipils – it takes 2 days to weave the cotton and another 15 to make the design. This is how we support our families along with the food we grow.

Marcelina: We were the first in our region to come together to form the cooperative. The men in our village supported our efforts and joined us, unlike in other places where men are often threatened by women’s leadership and initiative. But seeing our success, especially in obtaining government support, many other villages in the area have now followed suit.

Esteban: We have now been on the Board for 12 years. Our cooperative assembly meets every two years but refuses to let the five of us retire! There are other very capable women in the village that could be on the Board but the problem is that as women we have so many more responsibilities in providing for our families that it’s hard to find any time to do more than what we already do.

Marcelina: But there are younger women, who are more educated, like Esteban’s daughter. I think they will be more likely to step up in the future and help to lead the cooperative. We need them to!

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