Empower women. Eliminate poverty.

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How The Women of Friendship Bridge Embrace Equity

International Women’s Day:

Handmade by Friendship Bridge® employees and clients embrace equity in a gender unequal country

Travel to any of Guatemala’s larger cities such as Quetzaltenango, Antigua, or Guatemala City, and you’ll find opportunities for women in education, careers, and as decision makers in society. But Guatemala’s rural communities still tend to function under traditional patriarchal systems where women have less of a voice. According to the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), violence, in various forms, continues to impact the population, with women, girls and adolescents disproportionately affected. Cases of femicide and missing women have increased. In addition, Guatemala ranks 113th out of 146 countries in gender equality, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, making it the most gender unequal country in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This is where Friendship Bridge comes in, with the goal of empowering more women and eliminating poverty across all areas of Guatemala. 89% of the women they serve come from rural communities. The following women work with Handmade by Friendship Bridge®—two as employees and two as artisans the organization serves. This year for International Women’s Day, learn what they’ve overcome and how they are working to #EmbraceEquity in different ways.

Siona
Age: 23
Job: Product Assistant at Handmade by Friendship Bridge®

Siona, an indigenous Mayan young woman, remembers living in poverty at age four. “We had no house, nothing to eat, my dad drank a lot of alcohol and hardly cared about the family, and I had no toys or clothes,” Siona remembers. “My mom worked making huipiles, but it took her a month to make one. It was a very hard time for me and my siblings. When my father stopped drinking (I was 8 years old) he worked hard [as a boat driver], but there was still not enough money because there were five children at that time. Even then, if more than one of us got sick at a time, my mother could not go to the doctor because she did not speak Spanish, and we didn’t have enough money.” 

Siona’s parents did give her the opportunity to stay in school (many of her peers had to drop out in order to work) and she attended the MAIA Impact School in Panajachel, Central America’s first secondary school for rural indigenous young women. Through MAIA, she applied for an internship at Friendship Bridge, and afterward was offered a full-time job there. In 2022, she began working for the organization’s artisan program, Handmade by Friendship Bridge®, as Product Assistant. She plays a critical role in working directly with HMBFB®’s artisans, using her knowledge of Spanish and Kaqchikel Maya to help them develop new products in addition to quality assurance, placing and receiving orders, packing for export to the US, and more.

How Siona’s job helps her #EmbraceEquity: “Friendship Bridge not only empowers the clients, but also us as employees. We have the opportunity to make decisions and start projects; we just need to trust ourselves since inequality has always existed. But we can change it as we come to value ourselves more. I can break stereotypes both in the family and in society. Working there also helps me be an example for more girls, adolescents and even for other women to want to improve themselves.”

Siona’s hopes for the future: “I would like to finish fixing up [my family’s] house and for all my siblings to finish school; to see them become great professionals and excel. I’d like to be able to pay for a trip for my parents to go to another place or country. I would like to graduate from college, continue studying, get a job as a manager, buy a motorcycle, have my own house, and travel to another country.”

Erika
Age: 34
Job: Textile business owner

Erika lives in Quetzaltenango in the Guatemalan highlands, where most residents make a living in agriculture. The only girl among five brothers, she enjoyed helping with her family’s trade. Her father was a tailor; her mother, a weaver and seamstress. Erika was fortunate to complete high school while many around her had to drop out to help support their families. 

After finishing high school, Erika took a year off to consider college, but a surprise pregnancy changed her plans. Instead she got married at 20 to a shoemaker, then suffered the tragic loss of her first child. 

She and her husband combined their skills to start their own textile business. She loves designing products for her clients, and is skilled at making quality travel bags from leather and repurposed Guatemalan textiles. Business challenges come when she can’t find enough of certain recycled materials to fulfill an order, but her work has allowed her to overcome challenging financial circumstances.

How Erika’s job helps her #EmbraceEquity: “Thanks to my business and the help of my family, my job makes me an equal. I contribute to my family finances and I don’t depend exclusively on my husband providing for me. I can support the needs of my home, my own needs, and those of my children.” Erika takes advantage of business training offered through Handmade by Friendship Bridge®, and has explored training with The Academy of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.

Erika’s hopes for the future: “I hope to have my own house (she lives with her in-laws); that my children will become professionals; and that my business will continue to grow.”

 

Indira
Age: 24
Job: Communications and Visual Design Coordinator at Handmade by Friendship Bridge®

Since Indira was a young girl, she’s been drawn to color, design, art, and photography. She expanded on these interests with a degree in Communications and Design at Universidad Galileo in Guatemala; she is the first person in her family to go to college. She currently lives with her mom and two brothers (17 and 13) in Panajachel, Sololá, and is the primary income contributor in her family. Recently, she lost both her grandmother and father, with whom she lived, and it’s been the hardest time of her life. She is learning to cope by working hard and expressing her emotions, and also by studying and sharing as much time as possible with family.

Indira started working at Friendship Bridge in 2019, after college, in the Handmade by Friendship Bridge® program. “Most of the artisans I work with are operating businesses within beading (jewelry), sewing/textiles, weaving, basket-making. My favorite part of my job is to develop creative ways to promote the artisans’ work. I love it when I make the artisans laugh and capture their beautiful smiles in a photograph. With my creative skills, I am looking to drive positive change in causes such as sustainable production, poverty eradication, and economic growth.”

How Indira’s job helps her #EmbraceEquity: “My job helps me feel that I can deal with everything. Through the inspiring stories of the artisans, I remember that every woman is brave and strong and we just need to work hard on whatever we want. My work is one of my safe places—here, I can be who I am. Through my daily tasks and projects, I feel fulfilled and capable. It feels good to be an independent woman in a world for men. My heart rejoices in the realization that I can support my family and that I have a way to keep striving to get my brothers and mom ahead. Everyday I feel a bit more empowered and now I try to empower every woman I meet.”

Indira’s hopes for the future: “I hope to achieve a masters degree that I already started, and I’m also hoping to support my brothers to go to college and be professionals. I have also set out to achieve all of my father’s dreams for us that he couldn’t achieve. I don’t know how yet, but I’m sure that some day, my family and I will have our own house here in Panajachel. I’m also sure that some day I will become a mother, and I want to be as loving as my parents have been to me. The further I get, the further my family will go, too.”

 

Elena
Age: 47
Job: Weaver and Entrepreneur

A member of the Tz’utujil Mayan ethnic group, Elena grew up near coffee plantations. As one of seven children, she began working at age eight and only went to school through 4th grade. Her mother taught her to weave as a child and she has good memories of “cutting coffee” on the plantation.

Elena married at age 20, worked in a restaurant for six years, then started her own textile business, and had four children along the way. She’s known for weaving a variety of unique scarfs, blouses, and ponchos. She loves working with other artisans and being able to create what she likes, but competition is a challenge for her business. She also wishes she could afford to sell her products abroad; standard shipping fees make it too expensive for her.

How Elena’s job helps her #EmbraceEquity: “There is cooperation of everyone in my family to work together.” Once, Elena participated with a group of women in the Women’s Office of the City Hall in San Juan La Laguna, where the mayor invited her to represent her neighborhood. Together with other women, she helped identify opportunities for the artisan sector. Elena believes that the participation of women in decision-making spaces is important: “In order to develop the artisan sector, I think it is important that the women have the opportunity to have a direct artisan market, both inside the community and outside it. I hope that we can all earn a monthly income, so that we can better support our families and our people can be more prosperous.”

Elena’s hopes for the future: Elena hopes to finish her online store and be able to ship some products independently at a lesser cost. She’s proud that her three daughters are now bilingual secretaries at a chocolate factory, and can put their English skills into practice in customer service.