By Marie Struthers, EntreMundos contributor
“What is your biggest professional dream?” I ask Felissa Torres, the coordinator of the Sololá branch of CEIBA, a non-profit that fosters comprehensive development for poor and marginalized communities and prioritizes gender equality. Felissa empowers women in the Sololá region through a money saving scheme and entrepreneurship.
Felissa answers my question quickly. “I want the women entrepreneurs I work with to enjoy dignity and their full human rights. And I want their entrepreneurial associations to be self-managed and self-sufficient, and their activities to be of practical use to their communities.”
CEIBA supports groups of 10-20 women throughout Sololá’s 19 municipalities to learn to save money together, on a weekly basis. The group’s capital increases over time, and once it has accumulated sufficient money it makes loans and helps women cover unexpected costs. Many women are already small entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs starting out are among those who receive loans.
CEIBA assistance to the groups includes training and mentoring. “We don’t give the women anything for free,” Felissa explains. “We show them entrepreneurial opportunities and provide relevant training. They choose what they want to do.” CEIBA also brings the women to Guatemala City to observe sales techniques and pricing in a larger urban setting.
Gender equality work in Guatemala faces enormous challenges. One of many is the rate of sexual violence against women. According to Guatemalan health agencies every day 1-2 women are murdered and scores of girls are impregnated by members of their own family. These statistics make Guatemala the country with the second-highest rate of femicide worldwide.
The statistics become real during my hour-long talk with Felissa; in that time she describes three recent cases of sexual violence in CEIBA’s work community. In one, a woman with two girls under 12 married for a second time, but very soon the new husband sexually assaulted both of the children. In another case a married woman was raped by her cousin, and in yet another an unmarried woman fled her home after repeated threats of rape from her married brother.
Another challenge is the complexity of local politics. CEIBA is unable to work with the local branch of the governmental Commission on Women, for example. In the recent past Felissa left Sololá for some months, to escape the critical eye of municipal leaders. “Politics and politicians come and go,” she says, with a steely glint in her eyes. “But the people don’t go, they stay right here. We the people, particularly women, are autonomous, and we decide what we want for ourselves.”
CEIBA’s headquarters are in Chimaltenango, with regional branches throughout the country. Its overarching mission is food sovereignty, via the promotion of collective rights. Key elements of this mission are violence-free lives, civic and economic participation, and women’s, environmental and land rights. Volunteers are welcome at CEIBA.