Friday, April 17, 2009

Empowered Women, Empowered Communities!

Shoveling soil is HARD! That thought ran through my head over and over again as I watched SHARE Foundation’s delegates and members of cooperatives shovel compost as the sun beat down on the tin roof that barely covered the compost soil pile. We kicked up dirt and sand and soon everyone’s brightly colored sneakers were covered with muted brown earth. I gulped down water from my water bottle and wiped sweat from my brow with my sleeve.

The group I was with was comprised of American University students and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger’s staff and board members who had come to observe El Salvador’s historic elections and learn more about Salvadorans who are fighting for justice and creating real change in their communities. This group visited two cooperatives that participate in SHARE Foundation’s local development program: Los Frailes (The Friars) and the Marta Gonzalez Cattlewomen’s Cooperative (ACAMG).

Around 9AM, the SHARE delegates piled off the bus in the morning in La Bendición and were immediately greeted by a throng of excited, gregarious children. The delegates then convened with representatives from the Los Frailes in a community space, where individual farmers, both men and women, spoke about the benefits of using organic rather than chemical fertilizers and compost soil. Los Frailes participates in the Campesino a Campesino (Peasant to Peasant) Program, in which a local grassroots organization, CONFRAS, provides training on organic farming techniques and then encourages each participating cooperative to teach and train another community on what they learned. Farmers from Los Frailes spoke about the sense of empowerment they’ve gained by working together as a community in order to solve the community problem of hunger. To better illustrate their hard work to their visitors, the cooperative members took the group to a site where they were preparing compost soil. The cooperative members showed the different layers of the soil and invited the delegates to help “turn” the soil. Under the sweltering sun, the delegates took turns shoveling the compost, huffing and puffing with the effort. Rachel Ford, a freshman at American University and one of the first to volunteer to shovel the compost, stated, “I really enjoyed having the opportunity to work alongside the members of the cooperative and talk them about their experiences.” Luah Tomas, a freshman from American University, marveled at the difficult work required to make compost soil, “While I was watching some members of our group help shovel the fertilizer I thought that, for us, this is just two minutes of our lives, but for them it is their lives.” When it was time for the group to leave, we gave our new friends at the cooperative (sweaty) hugs and thanked them for sharing their time with us and teaching us about their work.

We arrived in Zamorano in time for lunch with the Marta Gonzalez Cattlewomen’s Cooperative (ACAMG), who prepared a sumptuous feast for the delegates. After the meal, the women spoke to the delegates about their cooperative’s history, their challenges, and their hopes. ACAMG began as part of a larger, co-educational organization, but the female cooperative members did not feel supported or included in the decision-making processes, so they chose to branch off in 1993 to form their own women-run, women-only cooperative. The women told the group how they struggled with members of their community, mostly men, who told them that they were selfish for choosing to leave the larger organization. However, the women moved forward with their plans of creating a women’s cattle cooperative, and to date, around 300 women participate in the cooperative. The women smiled slyly when they said that now some men have asked to join their cooperative, but they have told them that the only way that can join is if they start wearing a dress. Because of their success, the women have expanded their cooperative’s mission and have begun literacy circles to encourage women to learn how to read and write. During our visit, a delegate asked the representatives of the cooperative if they preferred any particular candidate or political party in the upcoming presidential election. Most of the women agreed that they wanted the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation) party to win, but they also reminded us that they had survived seventeen years without support from the government, and they would continue their work regardless of the election results on March 15, 2009. After the women’s presentation, Heather Wolfson, MAZON’s Marketing Manager, reflected, “I was inspired by the women of the cattle cooperative. Despite facing many hardships at its inception, the cattle cooperative has changed the lives of hundreds of women. The women have used this empowerment to provide a service for the region and have given women the independence to succeed.”

At the end of our visit, the members of ACAMG invited the delegates to participate in a procession in memory of Rutilio Grande, a priest who was assassinated during El Salvador’s civil war 32 years ago. We gathered up the road along with most of the citizens of Zamorano, which included an enormous green parrot, and filed into two lines. We sang spiritual and political hymns as we processed toward Zamorano’s church, appropriately named after Rutilio Grande. I marveled at the people in the crowd, Salvadoran and American, Christian and Jewish, young and old, united in creating a new El Salvador today.

To learn more about SHARE’s local development programs, click here.

To support SHARE's projects, click here.

- Sara Skinner, US Grassroots Coordinator

1 comment:

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