Empowering Guatemalan Women

Photos by Bernardo del Valle Pedroso and Caleb Longenecker-Fox

Guatemala has extremely limited opportunities for women and one of the region’s biggest gender gaps, Maria Pacheco says. But Pacheco, the co-founder and CEO of Wakami, a 20-year-old social enterprise, sees great promise for the future. “We have learned that with women, you change everything. When women are empowered, the right men come to the system.”

Maria Pacheco is co-founder and CEO of Wakami

Wakami is one of MEDA’s partners in the Women’s Empowerment for Central America (WE4CA) project. The effort, MEDA’s first project in Guatemala, is working with 5,000 rural and indigenous women in the areas of regenerative agriculture — chickens, gardens, and coffee — and light manufacturing, primarily handmade products.

Global Affairs Canada and MEDA supporters are funding the five-year initiative. It will assist women in improving their business performance, gaining access to gender-responsive financing and community services, and addressing gender-based violence.
“One of the things that we really love is [that]you [MEDA] have allowed us to expand our impact,” Pacheco said. The WE4CA initiative gives Wakami the ability to scale, innovate, and learn, she said. The organization has expanded its reach with young women to 13 girls’ clubs, compared with only one in the past.

Wakami started doing hand-made bracelets, “which needed zero capital, and then we started doing bags, [and] now we’re doing clothes.” It has also started another brand for home décor, including weaving and ceramic products. A move into agriculture through the project also provides food security and additional income for participants. “We always dreamt that the Wakami women would have the chickens and the gardens, and with MEDA, we were able to do that,” she said.

Donã Reina leads a Wakami women’s group in Tzununâ, Guatemala.

“Now the women have two sources of income [handicrafts and agriculture], but also, they have their own food.” Wakami never saw itself as being able to get involved with financing, viewing its work in providing training and markets as being all that it could handle. The involvement of MEDA and Pro Mujer, a Central American social enterprise that is also part of the WE4CA partnership, makes this possible, she said.

“The most important thing for us is access to markets. With MEDA, we have been able to train the women, not incubate them, but accelerate them to the next level, and make them be better businesspeople.” The needs are immense. While Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, Pacheco estimates that 60 percent of the population lives in poverty. In many communities, men have migrated to find work elsewhere, leaving women behind.

Remittances from the US are the number one source of income in the country, she said. A goal of women working with Wakami is “to have enough income to bring the husbands back and be a family together.”

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