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Telemedicine Clinics in GuatemalaNew telemedicine clinics in Guatemala are providing vital resources to women and children living in remote areas with limited access to healthcare specialists. This advancement in healthcare technology increases Guatemala’s healthcare accessibility and follows a trend of a worldwide increase in telemedicine services.

Guatemala’s New Telemedicine Clinics

Guatemala’s Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance (MSPAS), in conjunction with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization, launched four new telemedicine clinics in Guatemala in December 2020.

The clinics were designed to improve accessibility to doctors and specialists for citizens living in rural areas, where unstable or lengthy travel can deter patients from getting the care they need. Lack of staff is another barrier telemedicine hopes to overcome. Special attention will be given to issues of child malnutrition and maternal health.

The funding of the program was made possible through financial assistance from the Government of Sweden and the European Union. aimed at increasing healthcare access in rural areas across the world.

Guatemala’s State of Healthcare

Roughly 80% of Guatemala’s doctors are located within metropolitan areas, leaving scarce availability for those living in rural areas. Issues of nutrition and maternal healthcare are special targets for the new program due to the high rates of child malnutrition and maternal mortality in Guatemala.

Guatemala’s child malnutrition rates are some of the highest in all of Central America and disproportionately affect its indigenous communities. Throughout the country, 46.5% of children under 5 are stunted due to malnutrition.

Maternal death rates are high among women in Guatemala but the country has seen a slow and steady decline in maternal mortality over the last two decades. The most recently reported maternal death rate is 95 per 100,000 births.

Guatemala does have a promising antenatal care rate, with 86% of women receiving at least four antenatal care visits during their pregnancies. By increasing the access to doctors through telemedicine clinics, doctors can better diagnose issues arising during pregnancy and prepare for possible birth difficulties that could result in maternal death.

Guatemala’s COVID-19 rates have also impacted the ability of patients to seek healthcare. The threat of the virus makes it difficult for those traveling to seek medical treatment due to the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Trends in Worldwide Telemedicine

The world has seen a rise of telemedicine clinics as the pandemic creates safety concerns regarding in-person visits with doctors. Doctors are now reaching rural communities that previously had little opportunity to access specialized medicine. Telemedicine is an important advancement toward accessible healthcare in rural areas. While the telemedicine clinics in Guatemala are limited in numbers, they set an important example of how technology can be utilized to adapt during a health crisis and reach patients in inaccessible areas.

June Noyes
Photo: Flickr

Impacted by HurricanesOn November 2, 2020, Hurricane Eta made landfall in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. As a Category 4 hurricane, it was the strongest hurricane to hit the Central American region in many years. Shortly after, Hurricane Iota hit. Thousands have died and many have experienced displacement. Since Central America is one of the poorest areas of Latin America, the U.S. is in a position to help alleviate the crisis by providing foreign aid to those impacted by hurricanes.

Poverty in Central America

Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, Nicaragua’s poverty rate sits around 15.1%. Geographically, the poorest area of Nicaragua is the Atlantic Coast of the country. Similarly, Honduras is an impoverished nation located north of Nicaragua. Honduras is also one of the poorest countries in Central America. Furthermore, Honduras’ geographical location leaves it exposed to extreme weather such as heavy rainfall and droughts. The most vulnerable, oftentimes rural and coastal populations, are susceptible to these intense weather changes. Neighboring countries of El Salvador and Guatemala are also impoverished nations with vulnerable populations. The increased climate disasters leave these populations at risk of death, poverty and becoming climate refugees.

Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota

On the eve of Hurricane Eta’s landfall, the Nicaraguan government evacuated around 3,000 families living in the coastal area. According to UNICEF, more than a million Nicaraguans, which also includes half a million children, were endangered by the hurricane. El Salvador evacuated people as a precaution and many of Guatemala’s departments declared a state of emergency.

Hurricane Eta made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane. The storm destroyed houses, hospitals and businesses. Widespread flooding and mudslides were responsible for the casualties across the region. Unfortunately, Hurricane Eta was not the only storm blasting through Central America.

Weather forecasters predicted another strong storm, Hurricane Iota. Also a Category 4 hurricane, Iota made landfall 15 miles south of where Hurricane Eta did just days prior. The hurricane further stalled the rescue efforts of the region. In Honduras, the hurricanes impacted around 4 million people with more than 2 million losing access to health care. Moreover, Guatemala had more than 200,000 people seeking shelter after the two hurricanes.

Foreign Aid to Central America

The Central American region is impoverished and vulnerable to natural disasters. Furthermore, many Central American nations depend on foreign aid from the United States. The countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (the Northern Triangle) rely on foreign aid from the U.S. to manage rural poverty, violence, food insecurity and natural disasters. Moreover, that aid has been reduced under the Trump administration. Since Donald Trump took office, the aid for these countries has reduced from $750 million to $530 million. In April 2019, Trump froze $450 million of foreign aid to the Northern Triangle, further diminishing the lives of many. Foreign aid keeps Central Americans from plummeting to extreme poverty and also curtails migration to the United States.

Congress Pleads for Foreign Aid

As Hurricane Eta ravaged through Central America, Rep. Norma Torres (CA-35) wrote a letter urging Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to increase foreign aid to Central America. Torres (CA-35) wrote, “Hurricane Eta was an unavoidable natural disaster, but its aftermath is a preventable humanitarian crisis in the making.” In addition, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), Eliot Engel (NY-16), also showed his support for increased aid to those Hurricane Eta impacted. Engel wrote, “a large-scale U.S. effort is needed to provide much-needed relief to those affected by Eta so that they are not forced to leave their countries and make the perilous journey north.”

USAID Provides Disaster Relief

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has agreed to increase aid by $17 million to the countries impacted by Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota. Studies have shown that foreign aid is a successful policy to reduce global poverty. Any aid given to these countries benefits the lives of those impacted by hurricanes in several significant ways.

– Andy Calderon
Photo: Flickr

poverty in guatemalaThe Central American country of Guatemala, home to more than 17 million people, has an indigenous population of around 44%, primarily from the Maya ethnic group. Poverty in Guatemala tends to affect the indigenous population disproportionately. USAID estimates that 40% of indigenous people survive on less than $1.90 per day, compared to 24% of the overall population. While social and environmental problems disproportionately threaten indigenous communities, water sources are perhaps the most vitally important area under threat. Guatemala’s second-largest lake, Atitlán, sustains 15 villages. However, for many years, Lake Atitlán’s watershed has been in danger. In 2009, the Global Nature Fund named it “Threatened Lake of the Year” due to a sharp increase in pollution. Thankfully, recent advances in artificial intelligence may be able to help bring Central America’s deepest lake back from the brink. In doing so, they would also help reduce indigenous poverty in Guatemala.

Toxic Algae in Lake Atitlán

Toxic algae “blooms” have become relatively frequent in the Lake Atitlán watershed in the past decade. In 2009, Atitlán residents noticed that algal blooms had appeared in the lake. At one point it caused a shocking carpet of algae to appear over 75% of the lake’s surface.

According to the WASH Rotary Action Group, a nonprofit organization that helps indigenous lake communities access clean water and sanitation, more than 400,000 Tz’utujil, Quiche, and Kaqchikel Maya people live near Lake Atitlán. Despite the contaminants they face, they use the lake out of necessity. The algae blooms are caused by the presence of pollutants like phosphorus and E.coli from agricultural runoff and sewage. It changes the water to a green, brown or red color. More importantly, they can cause serious health problems. Fishermen and boatmen who work on the lake have reported skin rashes, while more serious long-term side effects of the bacteria include liver, kidney and brain disease. The indigenous community, whose people work overwhelmingly in the informal sector, may not be able to address these illnesses. They suffer from limited access to health care compared to non-indigenous people, according to the Pan-American Health Organization.

How AI Can Save Lake Atitlán

In 2018, Africa Flores, a research scientist at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, was chosen to receive the prestigious AI for Earth Grant, sponsored by Microsoft and National Geographic. This grant awards its “changemakers” $45,000 to $200,000 to help fund their pursuit of AI solutions for the environment. Prior to winning this award, Flores had been working for nearly 10 years to help environmental authorities and NGOs save Lake Atitlán. Flores’ latest endeavor will complement these efforts by developing an AI program to allow for better prediction of toxic algae.

Although artificial intelligence that predicts toxic blooms already exists, is is not available in Guatemala, according to Flores. Although the naked eye can detect algae blooms, AI makes it simpler to understand crucial data about these ecological events. Similar technology in the U.S. provides local authorities with an advanced warning about imminent events, which allows them to pinpoint when and where blooms will occur. This helps prevent contamination of the food supply and allows scientists to learn more about how to prevent harmful algae from forming in the first place. Speaking of efforts to save Lake Atitlán, Flores said, “When we identify key variables that [lead] to algae bloom formation, there is a starting point to take action.”

A Team Effort

Other nonprofit organizations, like Amigos de Atitlán and Vivamos Mejor, have been working to save Lake Atitlán for decades. La Autoridad para el Manejo Sustentable de la Cuenca del Lago de Atitlán y su Entorno (AMSCLAE) is a governmental organization responsible for lake conservation efforts. They provided Flores’ team with valuable data. This new AI project will complement governmental and NGO efforts to help the lake and its communities survive and thrive. Widespread adherence to government plans to implement wastewater treatment is necessary to preserve the watershed. These plans will also stop it from further contributing to poverty in Guatemala.

Hope for the Future

Though the AI application and its informational website are still in development, Flores said that she and her team are working hard to develop accurate prediction models that are accessible to the public. And while many see Lake Atitlán as a lost cause, it is also a well-loved jewel of southeast Guatemala. In 2012, Dr. Sativo, M.C.H.e. and Tzutu Baktun Kan wrote a song called “Lago Negro” (“Black Lake”), written in Spanish and the Maya language Tz’utujiln. The song laments Atitlán’s compromised biodiversity, but also praises the region’s beauty. It also encourages more accountability for organizations guilty of pollution. The song, like Flores, is ultimately optimistic that the lake can recover. It ends with the mantra “Ya se va a sanar”: It will be healed.

Andrea Kruger
Photo: Flickr

Maya Artisanal WeavingWhat do the 365-day calendar, the mathematical concept of “zero,” chocolate and rubber all have in common? All of these innovations are credited to the Maya, a civilization that survived for over 2,000 years in Mesoamerica. This article will feature another innovation: Maya artisanal weaving. 

At the turn of the 11th century, war disrupted the mighty rule of the Mayas. Unfortunately, after centuries of dominance, the Maya culture fell into disrepair. Furthermore, what was left of the civilization was decimated through conflict and epidemics brought by Spanish colonizers a few centuries later. In 1960, the Guatemalan Civil War began, during which the Guatemalan government attempted to exterminate the Maya culture through savage village bombings and genocidal executions. Of the 200,000 people who died amidst the war, 95% were Maya. This article discusses the modern-day history of the Maya and highlights a group of women practicing their culture and making a living with Maya artisanal weaving.

Modern Day Marginalization of the Maya

Thankfully, the Maya people have survived their tragic near-extinction. However, the Maya continue to face marginalization. Most of the poorest families in Guatemala are Maya families; the average Maya family has eight children, making necessities costly. Generally, these indigenous families remain in isolated, rural areas and receive very little government aid for medical care and quality education. Throughout Guatemala, there is a 60% drop off between the attendance rates of primary and upper secondary school. This statistic is even more drastic for Maya students. While teachers speak Spanish, most ethnic Maya children speak one of the twenty Mayan dialects. This additional obstacle contributes to these early dropouts. Unfortunately, many Maya children also drop out before the end of primary school.

Connecting Maya Artisanal Weaving with Global Markets

The Ancient Maya created a complex weaving machine. Modern-day indigenous crafts-women and men still employ this machine, working to combat endemic poverty in the region of Panajachel, Guatemala. Today, the backstrap loom, foot pedal loom and needlepoint hand-embroidery create the bold cloth which tourists and global shoppers adore. Hiptipico is a company that connects these works of art with the global market. Founded in 2012, Hiptipico, a certified B-Corps company, aims to preserve and develop Maya communities through sharing and protecting their cultural practices. The company’s namesake “tipico” comes from the Spanish word for the traditional clothing of the Maya.

Artisans Earn Fair Wages and a Global Platform

The artisan weavers that work with Hiptipico are small business owners, as well as the Quiejel and Chontala Weaving Cooperatives. Maintaining close relationships with these individuals and small cooperatives of women weavers allows Hiptipico to maintain fair wages when pricing products for the global market. 

Socially-conscious shoppers can purchase a wide variety of products from Hiptipico’s fashion line including woven greeting cards, camera straps, bags, totes, and face masks; all available in brightly colored, hand-woven patterns. Production of each Hiptipico product is incredibly time-intensive. A camera strap can take anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks to complete. Nevertheless, purchases provide a stable income for the artisans. The high-quality merchandise of Guatemala’s indigenous artisans has brought Hiptipico attention from all over the fashion industry. For instance, Hiptipico has organized collaborations with large brands such as Free People. By earning fair, stable wages and establishing a global platform, artisans of Hiptipico are empowering themselves and celebrating their culture.

Tricia Lim Castro
Photo: Flickr

Examining Women’s Rights in GuatemalaA small country located within Central America, south of Mexico, Guatemala has one of the highest rates of femicide globally. At least two women are murdered every day. Femicide is a threat against women’s rights in Guatemala, where femicide results in the killing of women for the sole reason that the person is female. Guatemalan women experience physical, psychological and economic violence. Additionally, indigenous Guatemalan women experience dramatically higher rates of poverty, illiteracy and racial discrimination.

History of Women’s Rights in Guatemala

The history of women’s rights in Guatemala plays a large part in its legacy. Much of the violence against women occurring now stems from the violence committed during the nation’s 36-year civil war, which officially ended in 1996. Violence against women was used as a counterrevolutionary tactic, where routine rape was commonplace. Today, violence against women is just as commonplace within Guatemalan society.

Yet, not much is being done to protect women and women’s rights in Guatemala. With women representing 51.2% of its 15.8 million population in 2014, women’s rights in Guatemala is especially important. As it is, 99% of femicide cases are unprosecuted, further perpetuating violence against women. Guatemala made waves in 1982 when it ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). However, Guatemala has failed to promote this.

In 2008, Guatemala passed a law, establishing special tribunals and sentencing guidelines for violence against women. However, violence against women continues as well as flawed investigations, enabling to perpetrators and victims alike that women’s lives do not matter.

“Justice only exists in the law. Not in reality,” says Lubia Sasvin Pérez in an interview with New York Times.

Yet, there are efforts being made to protect women’s rights in Guatemala.

Initiatives Supporting Women’s Rights

Inspired by the United States’ movements like Me Too, Guatemalan women are organizing and demanding their rights. The U.N. Women Guatemala’s Program has aligned itself with the U.N. Women’s Global Strategic Plan 2014-2017, UNDAF Guatemala 2015-2019 and the legal and public policy framework for Guatemala to guarantee women’s rights.

The program aims to guarantee women’s rights by empowerment, specifically social mobilization and advocacy to ensure women achieve their full potential, in which women are able to take part in the economy through work and in decision-making processes. Another platform, USAID, aims to empower women through civic participation and improving access to economic opportunities, quality education, health services and justice.

There is still much to be done for gender equality in Guatemala. The government must come to understand women’s rights in Guatemala and must push to find the resources necessary to promote the alleviation of violence against women. There is a growing movement to provide justice and security for women in Guatemala; however, resources and support are needed to end femicide and promote women’s empowerment.

– Danielle Lindenbaum
Photo: Flickr

Indigenous PovertyGuatemala is one of Latin America’s most unequal countries, with an indigenous population that has been especially impacted by COVID-19. Indigenous groups make up more than 40% of Guatemala’s population, which equates to more than 6.5 million people. Poverty rates average 79% among indigenous groups, with 35% suffering from food insecurity.

COVID-19 Exacerbates Indigenous Poverty in Guatemala

COVID-19 has only exacerbated the suffering of indigenous Guatemalans. Not only have indigenous families been pushed further into poverty, but reports of gender-based and intrafamily violence, murders and child pregnancies have also increased during Guatemala’s stay-at-home orders, which were intended to control the spread of COVID-19. The only exception to note is that there has been a drop in violent crime since lockdowns were imposed.

Child labor rates have increased, which is a concern since a child’s education is their channel to achieve social mobility and is key to reducing poverty. At the start of the lockdown, remote learning was promoted. However, less than 30% of Guatemala’s population has internet access. Only 21% of the population has access to a computer. In effect, COVID-19 is widening the economic gap between the indigenous population and those in urban Guatemala.

OCHA, the United Nations emergency aid coordination body, reported in April 2020 that seasonal hunger rates have worsened in eastern Guatemala due to lockdown measures. Compared to a year ago, health ministry figures point out that acute malnutrition cases in the department of Chiquimula increased by roughly 56%.

Oxfam Assists Guatemala

Oxfam, a confederation working to alleviate global poverty, has been on the ground in Guatemala, delivering food, sanitary and medical products, particularly to Guatemala’s indigenous communities.  However, Oxfam is working a little differently than in the past due to COVID-19 measures. Instead of risking the spread of the virus by sending outside people in, Oxfam is employing local Guatemalans by transferring credit to their phones and having them collect and distribute two months’ worth of necessary goods to those requiring assistance.

Insufficient Governmental Support

Guatemala’s government offers little help to relieve the effects of COVID-19 in its rural zones. In 2017, a study by the Guatemalan health ministry reported that the government spends fractions of its health budget in its rural zones compared to its wealthiest, urban cities.

The United States has increased its level of deportations under COVID-19-related regulations, leading Guatemala to trace 20% of its infections to those returnees. With the lack of governmental support and social safety nets, many poor Guatemalans are looking to flee the country.

Hopes for an Inclusive Society

Although the indigenous in Guatemala are creating their own solutions, using traditional knowledge and practices to contain COVID-19, the Guatemalan government must treat its indigenous population equally and include those who have been historically excluded by implementing strategies and operations to prevent and contain COVID-19 as well as alleviate its indigenous poverty rates overall.

– Danielle Lindenbaum
Photo: Flickr

How MUIXIL is Empowering Indigenous Guatemalan WomenAs the 1960 Guatemalan Civil War continued, military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt targeted the indigenous populations of the country as part of his counterinsurgency tactics from March 1982 to August 1983. His “scorched earth” policy led to the brutalizing of Indigenous Mayans, specifically those in the Ixil region. As few as 10% of Ixil villages remained by the end of 1983, and over 5% of the Ixil population was killed. The effects of the civil war and the genocide continue to be felt by the Ixil people—especially women, which is why MUIXIL works to empower Indigenous Guatemalan women.

The Effects of the War on Ixil Women

The Ixil region of Guatemala was specifically targeted during the civil war because of the indigenous population. As a result of the destruction of their villages, 29,000 Ixil people are estimated to have been displaced by the war. This displacement and destruction caused many Ixil people to lose their birth certificates and other forms of identification that are necessary for political participation in the post-war country, making it nearly impossible for many to vote in elections and creating widespread indigenous disenfranchisement.

The mass murders of Ixil people during the war widowed many women, making them solely responsible for providing for their families. This struggle was significantly more difficult for Indigenous women in Guatemala as they were often denied access to jobs and resources that could benefit them financially. Widespread poverty, malnutrition and the highest infant mortality rate in Central America at 23 deaths per 1,000 births are associated with the financial troubles of Ixil people.

Guatemala has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world, and in a two-year period ending in 2016, more than 2,000 women were murdered. Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by violence against women, which many researchers say is a result of the widespread violence against them and the lack of punishment for sexual and gender-based violence that occurred during the war.

The History of MUIXIL

MUIXIL was founded as Mujeres Sufridas de Area Ixil (Women Sufferers of Ixil) in 2003 to empower and support indigenous Ixil women, especially those who survived the civil war. The grassroots organization aims to promote the civil, political and economic rights of Indigenous Guatemalan women through the development of income-generating projects and a support system made up of other Ixil women.

The MUIXIL Weaving-Collective

MUIXIL partnered with MADRE, an international women’s empowerment nonprofit, to develop a weaving-collective for Ixil women. The project provides grants for women to purchase materials, such as yarn, that are needed to create products that can be sold at local markets. By selling their creations, these women earn additional income and learn entrepreneurial skills. The weaving-collective also preserve a culture that was nearly destroyed by the war as the women incorporate traditional designs into their creations. As of 2012, 45 women participate in the weaving-collective.

Also in partnership with MADRE, MUIXIL runs a sustainable chicken farming initiative. Indigenous women are given chickens to establish small-scale farms and grants to purchase the supplies needed for upkeep. At the end of 2010, 350 women participated in this project, supporting nearly 2,500 individuals. The initiative was later expanded in 2013 to three more communities with 50 additional women participating.

Like the weaving collective, the chicken farms provide Ixil women with income as they sell eggs at local markets. The chicken farming initiative also combats food insecurity in Indigenous communities as it provides access to protein-rich chickens and eggs.

Political Empowerment for Indigenous Guatemalan Women

MUIXIL also hosts workshops to show Ixil women the importance of and teach the skills needed for political participation at the local and national levels. The nonprofit organization also assists Indigenous women with the legal system, “including in trials to hold perpetrators accountable for human rights abuses against Indigenous Peoples.” Women seeking the recognition of their human rights by the government are accompanied by MUIXIL’s members for support.

During the 2012 session of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, MUIXIL advocated for the political rights of Indigenous women in Guatemala in the Report on Violations of Women’s Human Rights. In this report, the organization called out the national government for failing its constitutional duty to protect women and indigenous peoples by excluding them from the legal system. This exclusion takes on many forms, such as a lack of access to translators who are fluent in Indigenous languages, which effectively prevents many women from seeking justice. MUIXIL also provided recommendations in this report for how the government can better protect the rights of Indigenous women, including decreasing costs within the legal system, making courts more accessible by spreading them throughout the country and launching a program to document Indigenous peoples who were displaced or lost their forms of identification during the war to allow for more widespread political participation.

The Guatemalan Civil War witnessed genocide against the country’s Indigenous Ixil populations, leading to long-term consequences for these communities, especially women. MUIXIL combats the legacy of violence and discrimination against Ixil women by providing income-earning initiatives, political empowerment and a space where Indigenous Guatemalan women can find support and continue their cultural traditions.

—Sydney Leiter
Photo: Flickr

The Value of Small Nonprofits: Maasai American Organization
Lea Pellet, one of the delegates at the 1996 United Nations Women’s Conference in China, was very interested when nonprofit success was discussed. “One of the issues that came forth there was the recognition that big organizations were doing phenomenal work throughout the world, but there were a lot of pieces that really could only be handled by small groups. A church to a church, a school to a school, a women’s group to another women’s group.” With that thought, the Maasai American Organization (MAO) was born. Starting with domestic needs and then transitioning to international aid in health and education, MAO has flipped the script regarding non-profits.

Founder of MAO

Lea Pellet is a Wisconsin native and holder of multiple sociology and social work degrees from the College of William and Mary, Hampton University, Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University. She has served as a chair of the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology at Christopher Newport University from 1970 to 2006 and has also spent time as an Anthropology Field School Coordinator. Pellet founded the Maasai American Organization in 2000 and since then, the non-profit has worked with countries around the world. The organization’s name however, comes from their focus on helping the Maasai people of Kenya.

Domestic to International Efforts

The Maasai American Organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit originally run through Christopher Newport University in Virginia. As the program grew, it began to focus on international interests; this began with a grant from the School of Public Health of Mexico. The budding  idea was to find indigenous groups with a handful of educated or skilled people within the community, like teachers and doctors. MAO would then pair these people with groups from the United States in a fashion that values person to person interaction and connection.

On a trip to Kenya with her husband, Pellet met a woman who was once part of a UN program. Pellet asked her to consider setting her sights on the Maasai people by providing them with both aid and education. Pellet went with a team into the most remote areas of the Maasai territory and encountered their incredible pieces of art. Later, it was sold to African American museums in the United States. From there, Pellet got serious about becoming an NGO (instead of remaining university-based) and renamed the organization the Maasai American Organization.

Maasai Communities of Kenya

MAO put 300 Maasai girls through primary and secondary school in a culture that has historically not approved of education for girls. The organization’s focus was on educating girls who would return to the Maasai Mara and help improve their communities. Many of these girls would become nurses, teachers, entrepreneurs and social workers. MAO also helped build 10 preschools in remote areas, allowing some of the 300 graduated girls to be hired there as teachers. Most of the children coming to school have never heard Kiswahili or English. The children are typically taught by teachers from the urban area who have never heard KiMaa, the Maasai language. To eradicate language barriers, MAO teaches teachers to begin in native languages and then bridge to national languages if possible.

Most Maasai women were walking more than two hours to gather water from polluted streams. As a result, MAO put additional focus on the community’s acquisition of clean water. The organization installed deep wells where feasible and taught water purification techniques if wells could not be dug. Those wells made it possible for women to plant crops and even raise small herds of goats. Consequently, these changes improved the nutrition and health of children. MAO also constructed and staffed three family clinics, providing health officials until the educated girls were ready to take over.

Mayan Communities of Guatemala

Alongside her focus on Kenyan communities, Pellet felt the need to bring her work to Guatemala. MAO focused on educating Mayan girls to help build and staff health clinics. It also focused on developing markets for indigenous craft products and teaching women how to operate group craft businesses. The organization has built and supported a preschool and have moved approximately 50 Mayan girls on to successful school careers. One of the most significant contributions has been moving 80-100 women into entrepreneurship as glass bead weavers and jewelry makers.

Pellet personally oversees the most recent projects in Guatemala. She makes yearly trips there with a team to implicate different initiatives and work with the education and healthcare projects there. Her efforts have halted with the pandemic. She hopes to resume in the future when it is safe to do so.

Advantages of Small-Scale Nonprofits

Small nonprofits can have an incredible impact when working with low-resource communities. Here are a few ways that small initiatives like the Maasai American Organization can differentiate themselves from larger organizations:

  • Unique message or incentive
  • Flexibility and innovation
  • Less red tape
  • Cost-effective
  • Personal presence
  • Community-driven
  • Proximity

There are many situations where personal interaction and one-on-one aid is more helpful than sending a dollar amount. Lea Pellet’s Maasai American Organization is a great example of a small nonprofit that has made a world of difference in the past, present and future of the Maasai and Mayan peoples.

Savannah Gardner
Photo: Flickr

Poverty in GuatemalaGuatemala is a Central American country that borders Mexico and Belize to the North, and Honduras and El Salvador to the Southeast. With a population of 17.2 million as of 2018, Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America. Of the country’s total population, an estimated 45-60% is indigenous, and approximately 59% of the total population lives in poverty. Although most demographics in the country face poverty, rural indigenous communities feel the effects most acutely.

Second-Highest Level of Poverty in the Americas

Poverty in Guatemala is disproportionately high for the country with the largest economy in Central America; while Guatemala had a Gross Domestic Product of $75.62 billion in 2017, it also has the second-highest level of poverty in the Americas. Since 2006, poverty has grown. Approximately 2 million people slid below the poverty line (measured by an income of less than U.S. $5 per day) from 2006-2014. During the same window of time, around half a million slipped into extreme poverty (U.S.$1.90 or less per day). According to a national survey, the poverty rate among indigenous, predominantly rural communities is as high as 79%.

Poor Distribution of Resources

Extreme socioeconomic and geographic inequality largely characterizes the nature of poverty in Guatemala. As many as eight in 10 citizens living in rural municipalities live in poverty. One study found, from a sample of six other Latin American countries, that Guatemala had the poorest distribution of health and educational resources. Access to health resources and quality education is key in enhancing social mobility and bringing individuals out of poverty. Poor distribution of these resources in rural areas fortifies the regional cycle of poverty between contributing to lower life expectancy and limiting opportunities for education.

Additionally, chronic malnutrition debilitates poor Guatemalan communities; the level of malnutrition in Guatemalan children—47% as of 2019—is the highest of all the Latin American countries, and among the highest globally. This aggravates the cycle of poverty as well. Malnutrition burdens the already-limited healthcare system and stunts the local economic potential by reducing the physical and intellectual capability of youth. While many families traditionally subsist on agriculture to feed themselves, chronic drought has left many of these communities fully reliant on overseas remittances for survival.

Effects of the Coronavirus

As is the case in many countries, experts anticipate that poverty in Guatemala will increase as a result of COVID-19. In addition to the uneven allocation of health resources, the country’s poor have also suffered under strict lockdown rules, job loss and an enormous reduction in overseas remittances. The country reported a 17.2% loss in remittances corresponding with the rising unemployment rate in the U.S. These remittances not only make up approximately 12% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product but directly impact those families that rely on that form of income to feed themselves.

Additionally, stay-at-home orders have effectively collapsed the country’s informal economy, in which 70% of Guatemalans participate. Unregulated by the government, the informal economy comes with no formal protections or benefits in the event of labor loss. Similarly, official reports of unemployment in Guatemala are disproportionately skewed, as only 30% of Guatemalans work in the formal sector; this allows for employment statistics to disproportionately represent the number of individuals at risk of slipping into poverty.

NGOs Working to Help

Both domestic and international NGOs have turned their attention to meeting the challenges of poverty; these include issues both introduced and aggravated, respectively, by the COVID-19 pandemic. The humanitarian group Plan International presently tracks food prices via telephone surveys throughout Guatemala, identifying which regions are most food insecure.

The locally-based Konojel Community Centre is working to adapt their boots-on-the-ground services, suspending traditional programs aimed at reducing child malnutrition in order to distribute food packages to the community’s most vulnerable families. Simultaneously, Konojel Community Centre’s director is currently pushing the Guatemalan government to apply for loans from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to lessen the blow of economic crisis in vulnerable areas.

This comes at a time that Konojel Community Centre, like many NGOs at present, is hard-pressed for funding with the sharp decline of the global economy. Despite the circumstances, these NGOs are working to prevent as much loss of progress on malnutrition and poverty in Guatemala as possible.

Alexandra Black
Photo: Flickr

Women-Owned BusinessesNonprofit organization Mary’s Pence is working towards a world of empowered women making changes in their communities. To get there, Mary’s Pence partners with grassroots organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Central America to provide funding and development programs for women-owned businesses.

Executive director Katherine Wojtan believes Mary’s Pence is different from other nonprofits because the organization not only cares for the individual women, but also oversees the sustainment of their small businesses. Mary’s Pence also values the idea of “accompaniment,” explained by Wojtan as utilizing the abilities of everyone to accomplish a long-term shared vision. This concept is applied to the organization’s execution of both the programs in the states and in Central America, focusing on improving the whole rather than the individual.

ESPERA

The program in Central America called ESPERA, or Economical Systems Providing Equitable Resources for All, was created almost 12 years ago. “Espera” is the Spanish word for hope, a fitting name for the life-changing program working with women in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

“This is very intentional, it is not about making individual women rich, but about ensuring all women have access to resources and skills to make their way in the world and earn what they need for a good life,” Wojtan said.

ESPERA aids women who were victims of domestic or gang violence or are single mothers struggling to make ends meet. By giving grants to grassroots organizations in struggling communities, Mary’s Pence creates community-lending pools which women can take loans from to start local women-owned businesses that generate income. To ensure success, the staff of Mary’s Pence teach the community loan management and help elect leaders to track the lending.

Gilda Larios, ESPERA team lead, grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico and worked with Central American refugees before starting work with Mary’s Pence. ESPERA funding gives back to the whole community, not just the women receiving aid. Instead of focusing on building credit, women realize the importance of circulating money and products.

“Their confidence grew – first they asked for a very small loan, and over time they asked for larger loans and grew their businesses,” Larios told The Borgen Project. “With their strength, they are role models for new leadership in the community.”

ESPERA and COVID-19

ESPERA has helped develop many small women-owned businesses that create jobs for their communities and generate income for struggling women. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic put many of these businesses at risk as workers feared for their lives, but the ESPERA team responded fast, changing their focus from long-term development to responding immediately to the needs of the women.

As some women panicked about their businesses and the effects of the pandemic, the ESPERA team responded with a 12-week emotional wellness series, delivered via WhatsApp, and supported stores so they could keep reasonable prices for the communities. For women in the midst of paying back loans to the community-lending pool, their status is put on hold until they have the income to continue their payment.

Despite the support network ESPERA provides, the pandemic revealed some gaps in the system. It was challenging to ensure the safety of women experiencing domestic violence. The lack of access to phones and the internet made communication between communities and ESPERA leaders challenging. However, this time of crisis also brought the communities closer and proved the importance of working together through local businesses.

In her interview with The Borgen Project, Larios told of a woman named Aminta, who is in the ESPERA program in San Salvador, El Salvador. She transitioned from working in a “maquila,” or factory, to starting her own business sewing uniforms for local sports teams. During COVID-19, she also began sewing masks to help keep her community healthy. Success stories of women-owned businesses like this one propel communities into further financial security and empower other women to do the same.

Confidence and Creating Futures

Above all, ESPERA and Mary’s Pence hope to give women confidence in their own abilities to create the future they want for themselves and for their families. For Larios, the most rewarding part of working with ESPERA women is the “feeling of satisfaction and joy to see them embrace their possibilities and capacities that before they thought they didn’t have.”

Through ESPERA and their role in the creation of women-owned businesses, Mary’s Pence continues to change women’s lives by showing them the power they already had within themselves.

– Kiyomi Kishaba
Photo: Google Images