Guatemala – Rural Women Diversify Incomes and Build Resilience

Women Fighting for Food Security

By: Angélica Clarita Sapón

San Martín Sacatepéquez is a municipality of Quetzaltenango, known primarily for its beautiful volcano and Lake Chicabal. It is a village with an agreeable cool climate, and with a population that is 88% Mam Maya. Though the municipality has fertile land and is situated in a zone of abundant water resources, it also has a high percentage of children below two years of age with chronic malnutrition (according to data from SINASAN, the National System of Food Security and Nutrition, 53.1% of 835 children) and acute malnutrition (exact data are unavailable, but in 2018 an infant died from said cause). SEGEPLAN, the Secretary of Planning and Programming of the Presidency estimates that agriculture is the municipality’s main economic activity, however the intervention of intermediaries can be seen before product reaches the final consumer.

What does all of this mean? That despite the fact that farmers have the means to produce their own food and make a living off of the sale of their products, they cannot enjoy the entire fruits of their labor as they are unable to sell their harvest directly to consumers. This has brought other consequences beyond malnutrition, like the migration of many young people to the United States. As a typical situation in many indigenous areas with the potential for self-development, this municipality cannot completely take advantage of its natural resources.

My interest in San Martín Sacatepéquez and nutrition began last year, when I had the opportunity to work there on a community development project focused on food security and nutrition (commonly known as SAN, Seguridad Alimentaria Nutricional). Like in the majority of communities on the national level, San Martín has a Community Development Committee, or COCODE (Comité Comunitario de Desarrollo). According to the Law of Urban and Rural Development, a COCODE is “the principle means of participation of Guatemalans to bring about development programs in their lands.”

Nevertheless, many of San Martín’s COCODEs have prioritized infrastructure for many years, and while infrastructure is an important matter, it eclipses other urgent issues, like child nutrition. Without adequate nutrition, Guatemalan children not only present health problems, but also lose the ability to unleash their full potential educationally. Some non-governmental organizations realized that this was a problem and decided that the work being done by the government was not enough to deal with the issue.

Thus, COMUSANs were created, which are municipal commissions on food security and nutrition. The COCODE, relevant institutions and NGOs, municipal authorities, and key community actors participate in these commissions as civil representatives. As a result of civil representation, COCOSANs, Community Committees on Food Security and Nutrition, were created. Surprisingly, despite the experiences of other community commissions, the majority (some 70%) of key COCOSAN actors are women, which is not the norm when it comes to groups that represent community organization. Why in this case were things different?

Given their role, women in Guatemala are the ones who traditionally dedicate themselves to housework. They cook and take care of children, and so for communities, it was logical to pick them to be involved in these committees. However, just forming part of the committees was not enough for them to be effective: they needed training to be able to strengthen community organization, increasing their technical and managerial abilities to motivate the formation of the distinct community organizations. This process was promoted and financed by organizations like SERJUS, ASECSA, and Pastoral Social Caritas of the Archdiocese.

Like at the beginning of all processes, the participation of women was minor. They listened in silence to the information that was given to them each session. The main inconveniences were that they didn’t have strong Spanish abilities and that the majority were unaffiliated with previous community participation efforts. However, as the sessions developed and they continued to acquire knowledge, the panorama took an unexpected turn: they became completely and actively involved with the process, showed a greater interest in improving the nutrition of children, and began to participate with a sense of ownership and openness in the municipal meetings of the COMUSAN.

With this I do not wish to say that the implemented process has been miraculous and that just by having been accepted the women began to participate. Rather, this is all the result of various elements that favored change, among them the renewal of community leaders, the integration of youth into the processes, and the level of education of many of the women, which created an environment of cooperation and respect for their participation. During the meetings, they could be seen opining, proposing, and even demanding of municipal authorities and State entities that they comply with what had been established in laws that related to the issue at hand regarding food security.

In almost all of the municipalities where there is a COMUSAN, the institutions and organizations with a presence in the municipality are the ones who make the decisions and forge the path to follow in the fight against malnutrition. However, in the case of San Martín, things are different: the influence and organization of the COCOSANs are driven by the committee made up by women. Until now, one of the principle achievements has been the approval of municipal funds to carry out projects focused on diminishing malnutrition, something that (despite the fact that it is a legal mandate) is far from being realized in other municipalities.

However, beyond the funds obtained, the greatest achievement is the evolution of the participation of women, the important role they have taken on at the commission and municipal levels, and their managerial and influential power. This has led to increased attention in the municipality to similar themes: currently, the population is demanding that authorities of the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance provide necessary supplies to health offices and small units that work in communities to provide quick and timely attention to whoever asks for it. A long journey lies ahead for the women in this municipality, but the example of the COCOSANs brings hope not only for them but also other indigenous women in Guatemala.

Cover photo: Women from Aldea Campur, in Alta Verapaz, by UN Women