The project is funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). It primarily targets the indigenous population and women from the Alta Verapaz department, which has the highest poverty rate in Guatemala. This population is extremely vulnerable due to poor access to training and information, and limited options to earn an income. Empodera provides vocational training, coaching and job placement services to facilitate access to the labour market and offers seed capital for entrepreneurs to create or develop their own businesses. In addition, it raises awareness of sexual and reproductive rights, equality and equity, working to prevent various types of violence that impede comprehensive development, especially among women.
Empowering women in particular to increase their economic autonomy contributes to reducing gaps in equality. However, any type of strategy adopted must be culturally relevant, in the local language, and in consensus with local and community leaders. To widen the effect, Empodera began in 2021 to empower women and young people who in turn train more than 20,000 people in the communities where they live. These “multiplier agents” share the knowledge acquired about sexual and reproductive health, the care economy and the prevention of violence with groups of 30 adolescents and young adults on a voluntary basis. In this way, people in the most remote parts of the Alta Verapaz department can be reached. The multipliers act as leaders in the process of generational change within their communities.
Dilia Margarita Có Coy, who manages the gender equality and women empowerment component for Swisscontact in Guatemala, explains in this interview why her work is so important:
Knowing that women’s voices are often not heard and living the same reality as most women, especially rural and indigenous women, I was motivated to act when I saw the inequalities in basic services, such as education, health and exercise of rights. This led me to take part in movements of women, youth and indigenous peoples to demand that our rights be respected. I started my degree in order to learn more theory and skills, to better discuss and defend human rights, and to influence decision-makers by making concrete proposals to improve women’s lives. I am the oldest daughter from a family with nine children, and one of the first women in my village to graduate from university.
My role in the project is to raise awareness and develop the skills of men, women and young people in 12 municipalities of Alta Verapaz with the aim of fostering change: changing behaviour in sexual and reproductive health, preventing gender-based violence and addressing the care economy such as childcare.
Violence against women is unfortunately a historical and ongoing problem in Guatemala, and gender-based violence has been perpetuated as a tool for subordinating and controlling the lives and bodies of women. This violence is sustained by a patriarchal and conservative culture and a fragile security and justice system that often results in impunity for those involved. Moreover, women are discriminated against and excluded from taking part in decision-making processes, where women’s demands and needs are kept hidden from view and are ignored. Gender inequality also exists insofar as women are overburdened by domestic chores and caretaking, which keeps them from having time to pursue professional aspirations to earn an income.
Some of the main causes are poverty, unemployment and the lack of access to services. What is more, there may be domestic and gender-based violence and gender-based discrimination. It is important to recognise that when women migrate, they may lose their identity (language, knowledge and skills), fragmenting households even more. Women are highly vulnerable when they migrate, due to the fact that they are fleeing from situations of violence, discrimination and socio-economic exclusion. As migrants, they are at greater risk of human trafficking, exploitation and sexual violence, and they lose any labour rights.
The main challenges we have had to overcome have been related to the conservative mindsets of many institutional authorities and leaders: excessive control over women’s decisions and bodies leads them to see the topics of sexual and reproductive health as taboo. The religion that was predominant in some communities has impeded our efforts in that authorities were unwilling to conduct this type of education with young people. Local and community authorities lack awareness about the importance of addressing these issues, which in some cases meant that the training process wasn’t concluded and had to be moved to another location. Nonetheless, we have also found important allies in young people and women who want to break the silence and the gender stereotypes.
Developing women’s entrepreneurial skills is essential for them to get access to economic and financial resources. Control over such resources is decisive for achieving gender equality and empowering women to participate equitably in economic progress. What is most important is obtaining greater autonomy for women, and recognising and shining a light on their contributions to the economy, which means that they participate fully and with their rights guaranteed in all sectors and at all levels.
With the communication strategy “Let’s Live in Harmony” – which was spearheaded by the Ministry of Health in Alta Verapaz – we undertake a “cascade” training process that strengthens the multiplier agents’ understanding of comprehensive sexual education, prevention of violence and the care economy.
These agents are selected by the project partners or they are young people who are interested in learning about these topics and want to tackle the causes of inequalities. The actors receive intensive training, including didactic and thematic guides that enable them to share their knowledge with 30 young people and women.
The multiplier agents also benefit from this process: they feel grateful to be able to acquire new knowledge that is useful in their own life and they feel personal satisfaction for having gone through the learning process together with other women whom they previously didn’t know, and who they discovered had similar life experiences.
Women see themselves as leaders and community members, capable of sharing knowledge as multiplier agents, enabling their participation in decision-making processes. Furthermore, youth and women have been empowered with respect to their rights and are now reference points for preventing and responding to violence. They have been trained as agents who multiply comprehensive education about sexuality, violence prevention and care economies. Gender stereotypes and schemata have been broken, in both the worlds of vocational training and self-employment, where women are creating non-traditional professional endeavours such as repair shops for two and four-wheeled vehicles.