As we bump and jostle over under-maintained, over-traveled, rutted roads, it occurs to me that we were literally traveling to one of the far corners of El Salvador. El Rincón, or “the Corner,” is located in Northern El Salvador a stone’s throw from the Honduran Border, and named without a trace of irony. Upon arriving, we meet with a group of women that are being supported by Eva, the CCR’s* Woman’s Secretariat, a position funded by the SHARE Foundation, and Esperanza a local community supporter.
The women introduce themselves. They range in age from grandmothers to teenagers, all dressed in simple straight skirts reaching just past their knees. Rosaura, A timid, yet confident woman with long, graying hair is the president and the boldest of the group, yet she still seems timid. Four visitors is a lot for a town where only the CocaCola truck comes with any regularity. She explains to us that they began only seven months ago. They met twice a month and they would all bring one dollar. They would bring a dollar they had earned selling produce in town or along busier roads, or maybe it was a dollar they had managed to save by foregoing the few treats they’re afforded. They each brought a dollar and put them all together and saved them. That is how, she explains, they created their grupo de ahorros, their savings group.
We ask how much they had saved and the group looked at one another, each in turn meeting a gaze then straightening a skirt, or smoothing a dishtowel across a lap. “We held a raffle too,” someone adds. The savings groups are an Oxfam project and the idea behind them is that the members pool their contributions and then the group can offer small, low-interest loans to its members. Ideally the money is used for micro-business startups, something that will generate income for the borrower, allowing her to re-pay the loan but that will also sustain itself and provide income in a place where income is a rarity. One woman, in another community, borrowed five dollars to buy corn flour for tortillas to sell in the streets. The groups facilitate solutions for the community from the community. They generate women’s development at the most basic level of empowerment and self-sufficiency. “Including the raffle,” we ask, “how much have you saved.” The women look at each other again; hands reach up and stifle giggles before they begin. “Over four hundred dollars,” Rosaura reports. The women nodd their heads solemnly.
Four hundred dollars! Four hundred dollars is nothing to giggle at in a place where the basic food basket** for a rural family of four is estimated at $96 and most families somehow survive on less. Four hundred dollars; after eight months and a raffle! Their eyes widen as what they had reported begins to sink in; as they begin to understand what they are capable of. They haven’t begun to grant loans yet. They talk about starting a tiendita, a small store that would be managed by the group like a cooperative. They talk about raising chickens. As they discuss the pros and cons of each, as they discuss the risks, you can hear doubt hanging upon their words. Four hundred dollars is a lot of money, but it will go fast. Four hundred dollars is a lot of money to have had. When success comes faster than confidence it can paralyze.
In the coming months, Esperanza will continue to meet with them. She will sit with them sipping horchata, a rich rice drink, and discuss their projects. She will coordinate trainings and assistance as they are needed. She will tell them about the women that came before them, about their experiences, their successes as well as the lessons they learned. She will tell them about the women not so far away in Los Ranchos.
As newly repatriated war refugees, the women of Los Ranchos came together and began sewing undergarments. When they didn’t know, they organized trainings. They received help from international groups, like SHARE, and the UN Refugee Program and regional organizations such as the CCR. They learned to embroider and began selling artesian goods to visiting delegations. They built upon their new knowledge and learned that their success came from themselves, from their collective work and their collective will. They learned and they grew. What started with just a few women in a small sewing group is now a Women’s Collective of 18 members. They elect representatives to the community cooperative and manage their community’s needs. Currently, the women use micro-credits to buy more sewing machines, or start new ventures. Three women in the collective used a small loan to start a pupuseria. The words painted on the wall of a donated building holding a small store advertise “Milk, Meat and Bicycle Repair” proving that there are no boundaries to ingenuity. They learned, and continue to address the needs of their communities, together.
The most recent buzz word programs have been micro-loans, micro-lending, or micro-credits; small sums of money making big differences. They allow the worlds poorest citizens an opportunity to develop their own micro-enterprises within their immediate market economy. Poviding a funding source to those who would not otherwise have access to funds at reasonable rates. The exact opposite of paycheck loan programs that exploit the desperate and destitute, micro-credits are intended to foster self-suficiency for the borrower. At their inception, they were truly a revolutionary idea, infusing social consciousness into the market economy, or in the least, attempting to begin to level the playing field. These small enterprises will never compete with transnationals, but they can contribute to the social marketplace and provide for their immediate needs. The credits are absolutely a step in the right direction, but alone, they are not enough. They must be accompanied by the understanding that true sustainable development is accomplished through holistic projects. Micro-credits help women but micro-credits accompanied by community organization, cooperation, education, and mentoring empower women.
Back in El Rincon, we hide from the sun within cool adobe walls. The women discuss plans for the tiendita. They will need a roof, they say. We ask if they think that people will buy from them and they all nod their heads. “Ours would be the only one,” they giggle. And just then it becomes real to them. Just then, they realize that something has changed, that they have created something together. Suddenly potential doesn’t seem as frightening as it had before.
*CCR – Is the Associación de Communidades para el desarollo de Chalatenango (Association of Communities for the development of Chalatenango) is a community development group and counterpart of the SHARE Foundation that functions in Chalatenango, a department in North Central El Salvador.
**The Basic Food Basket is the estimated cost of the food items (bread, tortilla, rice, meat, oils/fats, eggs, milk, fruits/vegetables, and sugar) required for a family of four to meet their basic nutritional needs. The Basic Food Basket does not include other living expenses such as transportation, shelter, electricity, education, clothing, and health.