On a humid afternoon in late January, Flor de Maria Espinoza shows me around her workplace. It's a small, unassuming naturopathic clinic in rural Nicaragua, where dogs stretch out along the edge of the street, snoozing in the midday sun. But to Flor and the other residents of Achuapa, the clinic is a symbol of hope and progress. Western medicine is too expensive for most people, says Flor. "But here," she adds, gesturing proudly about, "no one will ever be turned away."
It's no small feat for a woman to earn a living in this remote community of 13,000. Nicaragua is the second most impoverished country in the western world and it remains a mostly male-dominated society, with plenty of unpaid work for women (child rearing, cooking and endless chores), but too few opportunities to earn a paycheque. This is especially true in rural regions. "Our community is very poor," emphasizes Flor, a petite 50-year-old single mother of six.
Health care for all residents and employment for women are just a few of the welcome benefits that Achuapa is reaping from a local cooperative of sesame seed farmers. The Juan Francisco Paz Silva co-op formed in the early 1990s, when individual farmers grew tired of being cheated by dishonest clients and realized they could get a better deal for their sesame seed oil if they banded together. Since then, the co-op has funded schools, housing and clean-water projects, a subsidized general store and a credit union (the only bank in town), which has handed out more than $6 million in low-interest loans.
Brigido Souza, the co-op's president, explains that the group's ability to help people rise out of poverty stems from a fair-trade agreement with the buyers of its sesame seed oil. The price that the co-op charges includes a premium that is invested back into the community. The largest buyer is The Body Shop. It uses sesame seed oil in about 60 of its products, and has a long-term commitment to buy from the farmers.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of this equitable partnership are the women of Achuapa, who have not traditionally fared well in this community. For instance, the town has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Nicaragua, and many mothers, like Flor, are left struggling to raise children on their own.
"We've seen a lot of advancements for women under the co-op," says Wana Rodriguez, 54, whose husband, Epifano, 48, is a sesame seed farmer. She adds that the co-op is encouraging women to play a greater role in the community and become more independent. For example, Wana organized a group of women to buy ovens that produce less smoke in homes and, as a result, reduce health problems.
Page 1 of 2 - Read page two to learn how to help
Click here to learn more about volunteering with the whole family.
Wana's is just one story that demonstrates how women here have taken more control of their lives and improved their status in this society. Inglys Jesenia Arostegui Beltran, 26, is a mother of five and an outreach worker employed by the co-op to give technical advice and assistance to farming families. Thirteen mothers who received loans from the co-op formed a group to make and sell natural remedies, which are used in the health clinic. Today they manage their families' finances and have savings, which they lend to men. The co-op has also helped women make and sell hibiscus tea, a venture that is flourishing.
In a bold step that reflects the spirit of fairness that lies at its roots, the co-op is also striving to change the very way in which men value women in this community. It has helped pay for workshops on sensitive issues, such as the division of labour in the home and domestic violence.
"We get groups of families together and talk about daily life and ask questions like, ‘Do you think this is fair?' and ‘What can be changed?'" says Juan Ramon Bravo Reyes, 49, the president of Del Campo, a larger organization that helps the co-op sell its sesame seed oil. "It would be difficult to find a man in our society who would wash his own clothes," adds Juan, "but we hope that the children will adopt new ways."
And we can, too. Shortly after leaving Nicaragua, a fair-trade logo on a chocolate bar caught my eye as I waited in line at a convenience store back home in Toronto. It reminded me of Achuapa and how skin-care products made with sesame seed oil harvested in Achuapa have given women in that community a hand up and new hope. We may feel powerless to help others who are a world away from us, but we can do more than we think.
Learn how African grandmothers are saving their continent
Canadians lend a hand
Here are six organizations across Canada that are working on the ground in Nicaragua to make a difference. Your support of these groups can help change lives.
Canadian International Development Agency(CIDA)
From 2006 to 2007, CIDA's funding for projects in Nicaragua hit $7.7 million. Currently, CIDA is supporting the Government of Nicaragua's goal of universal primary education by 2015, as well as watershed management initiatives and gender-equality programs.
Canadian Labour Congress
The Canadian Labour Congress supports the Maria Elena Cuadra Association of Working and Unemployed Women in Nicaragua, which works to secure respect of labour and gender rights. It also works with unemployed women.
Care works to improve education and primary health care in Nicaragua. Recently it launched a rural water, sanitation and preventive health program.
CoDevelopment Canada (CoDev)
This nonprofit agency works for social change across Latin America, in particular, public education, protecting workers' rights, strengthening grassroots community groups, and global education. CoDev also teaches Canadians to understand global issues and the challenges for people in Latin America.
Oxfam Canada works with local organizations across Nicaragua. Through its partners, Oxfam helps women's associations promote organic farming techniques and farm management; in particular, it is focusing on sexual and reproductive health, domestic violence and drug use. Oxfam Canada supports organizations that work to change men's behaviours toward women and foster respect for women's rights.
Canadians sponsor 8,000 children in Nicaragua through World Vision. Their donations support education, health, improved nutrition, agricultural training and small business loans.
Page 2 of 2