Finding Their Voice

On Friday and Saturday, the Antigua fellows and Ximena went on a combination vision campaign/ training session with Yoly (Marguerite‘s host-mom) and Clara Luz, two regional coordinators at Soluciones Comunitarias.

The training of the new “asesoras” (community “advisors”, or women entrepreneurs) began on Friday. We were trying to fit the training all into one day because traveling to Conguaco is a long and expensive trip. When we arrived the women were already waiting, but as the training began I saw something that worried me. It worried Yoly and Clara too. And what was this worrisome thing? Utter silence. Silence on the part of the eight women that Yoly & Clara had come to train; Silence that really got in the way of teaching them to give eye exams and explain about products, that got in the way of them even expressing their thoughts or questions. They wouldn’t make eye contact, wouldn’t even raise their hands when Clara asked “Who is interested in becoming an asesora?” I don’t think I’ve ever seen such timidness in grown women, much less eight grown women who had already agreed to dedicate an entire day to this training. As I said before… things did not bode well.

My hopes were steadily sliding… but Yoly and Clara didn’t let the lack of response dishearten them. They remained enthusiastic, and continued to teach and share their personal experiences, for just 6 years ago Clara and Yoly were much like these women: unvalued in their communities and among their families as anything more than the chef and the maid, although it’s hard for me to imagine them as anything other than the collaborative, capable and respected leaders that they are today.

Slowly, but slowly, and with much encouragement by Yoly & Clara, the women began to speak up a little more. By the end of the day, we weren’t finished with the training as we had hoped, but all of the women had given at least two practice eye exams–to each other and also to the us, the fellows, who tried to throw them curveball questions that had tripped us up in our first campaigns. I was pleased and surprised to hear one woman respond perfectly when I (playing the part of a belligerent elderly woman) insisted that I had seen these exact glasses in the market for half the price and she must be trying to rip me off… (The correct response, by the way, is that the glasses in the market are not authentic, and we, madame make-a-fuss, are also providing the service of this eye exam to ensure that you get exactly what you need.)

Though our hopes were lifted, we have yet to see if any of these women will really be able to shake off their meekness and awaken the leader inside of them. What really intrigued me though, was unearthing what could be the root cause of “the silence.” Clearly the women are residents of a very poor area of Guatemala with a true lack of services and opportunities, in addition, who knows what the level or quality of their education was, and surely there are more factors that I haven’t even thought of. One factor though, stared me quite literally in the face when a male community leader who helped organize the training gave them a small speech midway through the training to encourage them to speak up and participate. He used the word “hembras” to refer to the women, and I assumed it meant “young women” or something along those lines (the association of the word “embryo” caused that one, I think…) Later on, however, Ximena told me that hembra means “female” but is typically only used in identifying the sex of animals. It thus became obvious that gender roles within the community were probably the most basic cause.

I think, however, that the thought that has stuck with me most vividly since the campaign is how incredible it will be if even just one of those women becomes a leader and contributor to her community at large, serving as a role model to all the other women she meets and an example to all the other men.