Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Empowering Women with PHPG in Piedras Coloradas

Hey Y'all!

The "Red Rocks" at Piedras 
My name is Morgan Tucker and I am a Microlending Intern with PHPG this summer in Nicaragua.  I wanted to update all of the donors, regular readers and anyone checking out this blog about PHPG's work in the department of Matagalpa in Nicaragua.  As many of you know, PHPG began working in the department of Granada and does most of their work there.  However, last fall they expanded to the northern, more mountainous department of Matagalpa to a community called Piedras Coloradas ("Red Rocks").  I was fortunate, as there was only one spot for an intern to go, to be able to visit Piedras Coloradas about three weeks ago for PHPG's monthly meeting.

All of these women were in the back
of our truck and had to get out  and
cross the river  on foot so our truck
could make it across.  The male
workers were filling in the river with
enough rocks to make it passable.
Piedras Coloradas is named "Red Rocks" because of the large rocks on the side of the nearby mountain that turn red in the sunlight.  It is a very poor, isolated community.  PHPG lends to people that live on less than $2 a day, but the borrowers in Piedras Coloradas actually live on less then $1 a day.  There is no cell phone service of any kind and it is very difficult to get to.  It lies down a dirt road full of rocks which includes crossing two or three streams without bridges.  A bus only arrives and departs twice a day and you can forget about taxis. PHPG workers go in a truck with another development organization, ADIC ("Association for Integral Community Development"), that also works in the community monthly.  ADIC mainly works with community health through education and other projects.  For example, they built latrines in Piedras Coloradas where there were none before and where virtually no one has any type of bathroom in their home.

A group working on their poster
Women from Piedras Coloradas and another community, Samulali, met with both of our organizations in a school house.  First, ADIC did a workshop entitled "Identity and Conditions of Women" as part of a campaign for the International Day of Women's Health and Mother's Day.  The workshop was led by two ADIC workers: Silda and Rosalia.  The objective of the workshop was to promote a process of reflection among women by leading them through expressing what happens to them, what they live through, and what they want in order to bring about changes and transformations in themselves.  Another objective was to promote confidence and community among the women from both communities and women of different ages.  After an icebreaker, the women were put into groups and given a list of questions that addressed the objectives.  Then they all made posters answering these questions and presented them to everyone in the workshop.

A full room for ADIC's workshop
I learned quite a bit about the status of women in Nicaragua by listening to what these women had to say throughout the workshop and combining it with my observations of the country.  Women in Nicaragua face the same challenges as women everywhere else in the world.  Issues that are particularly salient in Nicaragua include the high rates of sexual violence, incest between older men and girls, men abandoning their spouses and children, domestic violence, and young pregnancy.  Although there are many of the same legal protections on paper for women here as in developed countries, women generally have nowhere to turn when they find themselves in any of the above situations.  The few police forces that exist are not very mobile (as in they don't really have vehicles) and will usually tell those involved in disputes to work it out themselves.  Many cases that go before courts are usually not ruled in the favor of women's rights.  Furthermore, because many women do not have enough income to be independent of their spouse and do not have other resources, such as shelters, they have no way to improve their condition.  Many women in the workshop admitted to facing domestic violence and needing their husband's permission to even come to the workshop.  Additionally, many women admitted to not being able to read despite the government's assertion that there is no illiteracy in this country.

Other aspects of women's health were an important subject of the workshop.  Rosalia stressed the importance of sexually active women getting paps once a year and the places where it could be done affordably.  She mentioned that there are many lies out their that deter women from getting paps, such as that it will sterilize you.  The workshop also address women's role as mothers in the health of their family.  It is common in Nicaragua for children to be fed a lot of soda because the children think it tastes good and all of the sugar fills their empty stomachs.  Rosalia pointed out that women need to take more advantage of all of the natural fruits and vegetables around them in the forest as a source of food and drink.  

PHPG's meeting

After the workshop, those who have loans with PHPG remained for our meeting.  There are currently 23 borrowers, which are only from Piedras Coloradas, and 16 of them make biannual payments while 7 make monthly ones (they had the choice between the two payment cycles).  All of the loans are individual, versus in group, and all of the current borrowers are on their first loan with PHPG.  We were there to collect the monthly payments and to talk with the borrowers about any difficulties they were having.  We were also there to continue the process of disbursing 50 loans to new borrowers.   That day we were reviewing loan requests with the borrowers and having them sign them.  PHPG is planning on disbursing these new loans in August.

Loan Officer, Gilbert, reviewing a loan 
request with a new borrower, Marcia,
 before she signs it
Before I came to Piedras Coloradas and heard about this system, I wondered, how can this be microfinance?  One of the principals of microfinance is that borrowers make small, frequent payments, which puts less pressure on them, and has produced higher repayment rates than commercial banks.  Then I found out that every single borrower in this community works in agriculture, mostly coffee.  Because Nicaragua has a warm climate all year round, crops can be grown all year round.  Nicaragua also has two seasons that are 6 months long each: winter which is the rainy season (May - October) and summer which is the dry season (November - April).  These seasons coincide with growing seasons: the "normal" season during winter and la postera (post as in after the normal season) where "extra" things are grown.  Because of this, borrowers make all of their profits twice a year, after each season, and it is thus more practical for them to make their loan payments twice a year.  I was impressed on how PHPG had adapted their process to local conditions.

Every single borrow in Piedras Coloradas is a woman.  This is not because it is PHPG policy, but because women tend to seek microloans to invest in their businesses.  First of all, Nicaraguan women have a special entrepreneurial spirit that can be seen from all of the women working in the informal sector in the street and open air markets.  Secondly, the spouses of women in Nicaragua are often employed in other businesses while women work in the home.  Therefore, women often start their own businesses, usually out of the home, in order to bring in more income to improve their families' lives.  It is more feasible for women to work out of their homes because, again, they have other responsibilities with managing the home and children and they don't have to invest in a different location for their business.  Because women are in charge of managing scarce resources for the family, they are also more likely to invest a loan wisely in their business.  As Gilbert said to me the other day, "If you send a women to the market with $5, she will come back with lunch for everyone.  If you send me, I won't come back with anything."  Giving women the opportunity to earn income for their work gives them more power and independence in getting out of the many situations harmful to women's health mentioned earlier.

Me riding in the back of the truck after 
a great day in Piedras Coloradas
I learned a few things about the practice of development that day.  First, I learned how important it is for development organizations to work together in order to be successful.  When development organizations work together they can pool resources, and avoid duplicative services, which makes them more effective.  The workshop seemed successful because of its quality, especially the quality of leadership of Silda and Rosalia, and high attendance.  I think there was such high attendance because they made it possible for the women to get there.  ADIC picked up everyone in the back of their truck that lived too far to walk, and not only allowed them to bring their children, but acknowledged that it was their right as mothers.  Without transportation, and the ability to care for their children, these women would not have been able to come to ADIC's or PHPG's meeting.  ADIC also fed everyone lunch which encouraged people to come and socialize in a more informal setting.

In addition, because ADIC and PHPG have a regular presence in the community they have effects that would not otherwise be realized.  ADIC was already announcing that they would be back in a month to have a workshop on baking breads and desserts, and of course, PHPG will be going back with them for our monthly meeting.  Some women were very confident in speaking in front of a large group while others would not even speak when called upon.  Building women's confidence in themselves is an important psychological aspect of empowering women and can happen in this group overtime, because our organizations visit regularly, as the women become more comfortable with each other.

I also learned that it takes people of all different backgrounds to make development work.  Here you had  ADIC which was an organization funded by a variety of foreign (mostly European) and domestic sources and administrated by Nicaraguans, and PHPG, which is an American organization that also has Nicaraguan employees.  Some people would call this Nicaraguan dependence on unsustainable foreign aid while I see it more as world citizenship.  However, the most important factor was that the people in the community were actually participating.

Thank you to all of the donors who have made this kind of change possible and all of those who are interested in PHPG.  I encourage you to follow this blog as well as mine and the other summer interns listed on the right side of this page for more news about PHPG.