by Wendi Walsh and Nicole Theberge

The Republic of Guatemala is a country in Central America that is bordered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.  Guatemala was part of the Mayan civilization that was conquered by the Spanish.  After independence, Guatemala was led by several dictators, experienced several civil wars, and today has a representative democracy.

Guatemala has a diversity of biology and is viewed by many as a biodiversity hotspot, and multiple ethnicities, which are represented by Mestizo, Mayan populations, Garifunas, and Xincas.  Guatemala has a population of nearly 14 million (2011 estimate) people.  According to the CIA World Factbook (2013), Guatemala’s gross domestic product per capita is $5,200 (USD) making it one of the poorest countries in Latin America.  The distribution of income is highly unequal with more than half the population below the poverty line and approximately 574,000 unemployed.  The Factbook considers 56.2% of Guatemala to be living in poverty (Central Intelligence Agency).

The capital, Guatemala City, is home to libraries, universities and museums.  While Spanish is the official country language, at least 25 dialects (including 22 Mayan dialects) are spoken in Guatemala.  About 50-60% of the population is Catholic with 40% Protestant, 3% Eastern Orthodox and 1% indigenous Mayan.  Cultural protections have been established for traditional Mayan religions and the government has established a policy of providing altars at every Mayan ruin so that traditional ceremonies may be performed there.

While public elementary and secondary schools are free, families pay the cost of books, uniforms, supplies and transportation.  These costs can put education out of the reach of many Guatemalans.  There are private schools that appeal to middle and upper class families.  Just over 74% of the population aged 15 and above are literate, which is one of the lowest literacy rates in Central America (Guatemala, n.d.).

Why Women’s Leadership is Important to Guatemala

Poverty and lack of education make decent employment opportunities difficult for people, especially women.  Few women have professional jobs and most women who work out of the home sell food and crafts.  The infrastructure (power, roads, and factories) does not provide adequate access to several towns, and many people have to leave their hometowns to work or to sell their products.  There is poor access to basic health services, and when people are very sick it is unlikely they can afford a particular doctor.  A high percentage of the population, especially women, are illiterate.  For example, in some of the indigenous communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez, 90% of adult women are illiterate.  Although some girls have the opportunity to complete primary school, the tasks of the house and family take many girls out of school, leaving them with few opportunities to prepare for a professional job.

Guatemala has two Country Coveners, Mabilia Carolina Joi Ojer (Mabilia) and Rocío Gonzalez.   First, we will learn from Mabilia and then Rocío.

Biography of Convener Mabilia Carolina Joj Ojer

At 19, Mabilia began to work with women.  She was passionate about women becoming self-sufficient and saw microcredit as a key resource to achieve that self-sufficiency.  For seven years Mabilia worked as a loan officer with FAPE (Fundacíon de Asistencia para la pequeña Empresa)  Now she is a Coordinator in this organization, a position that allows her to influence policy and continue her strong push to help women develop savings accounts.

“People, especially women, do not have easy access to credit, and institutions (such) as FAPE provide micro-credit starting from $125 as an initial credit,” Mabilia explains.  “The lack of preparation in business makes women vulnerable to the failure of their businesses, so it is important for us to continue to encourage the leadership of village banks to empower entrepreneurial women so they can grow and improve their business and improve the quality of life for themselves and their families.”

While deeply aware that micro-loans enable women to provide for their families, Mabilia and her organization also recognize that the loans themselves are not an adequate single solution to a better life.  The organization’s staff continually seek to work holistically with the women they serve.  They provide training in business topics such as how to make a plan for their business.  They seek ways to provide health service and health education.  They help women recognize how much of their own energy and skill they invest in creating their products.  “I didn’t know my own value,” women often say to Mabilia.  “Yes,” Mabilia observes, “these women empower themselves and one another.”  They learn to support each other.  They learn to work together.  They experience a great sense of solidarity.

Mabilia is seen as a leader, an example of a woman who knows her own value, and contributes in a meaningful way to her community.  At one point, a mother confided to Mabilia, “I want my daughter to get an education and have a job like you, not just get married.”  Mabilia was honored by that comment and sees it as a joyful responsibility to be a positive, good leader.

Mabilia was an iLEAP Fellow in 2010, which has enhanced her leadership skills.  iLEAP is an international nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire and renew social leaders and global citizens through values-based leadership programs.  The programs are conducted in Seattle, Washington, and collaborate with social change leaders in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to build regional networks of change leaders who are committed to building strong global partnerships for social change.

Mabilia’s Work at FAPE

Through her work at FAPE, Mabilia serves a rural area that has a majority population of indigenous Kaqchiquel people.  FAPE’s loans are focused on the indigenous and non-indigenous women with activities in trade, agriculture, crafts, clothing, sale of food and vegetables, animal husbandry and basket making.  FAPE has served more than 3,000 women, providing them with microcredit services, and these women work in at least 20 different towns.  Mabilia’s team of seven indigenous women attends to approximately 1,400 women.

Over the last two years, FAPE has conducted a pilot program for approximately 450 indigenous and non-indigenous women, training them in business subjects, mentoring, technical training and credit.  During this time, FAPE has also participated in a health project that has trained approximately 400 women in the areas of self-esteem, preventative health, family planning, hygiene, nutrition and first aid.

Conversation Circle

In the Conversation Circles, we asked the Convener to explore these four questions:

1.  What do you care about in your community and in what projects have you participated?

2.  As you engaged in this work, what skills have you used?

3.  What additional skills or knowledge would you like to gain?

4.  How do imagine you might develop these skills?

  1. The participants of Mabilia’s Conversation included eleven participants who are loan officers, village bankers, microcredit program coordinators and leaders from the banking community.  They have personal and professional passions that help them improve community, especially related to schooling and literacy for women and girls, business training, employment training and the minimization of domestic violence and abuse.  They have seen firsthand the challenges that women and children in particular face to improve their lives, and the women work to remove those challenges.
  2. All the participants named their best skills and some skills they have learned as they have engaged in this work, including listening, sharing life experiences, building trust, being a good example, giving space and opportunity to participate, overcoming selfishness, encouraging participation and teaching other women so that they can participate.  The participants seem to be looking at longer term and systemic solutions instead of transactional changes and quick fixes.


  1. The participants offered both tactical and holistic responses to the skills and knowledge they would like to gain.  Tactical skills included public speaking, giving presentations and negotiation.  Holistic skills included redefining teaching and acknowledging the experience and wisdom inside the individual, instead of looking for “external experts.”
  1. The participants took a longer term and broad view of how they might develop these skills.  They suggested learning skills that would help them better teach others, to be open to being influenced and to continue their practice of women teaching women.

Kitchen Cabinet Letter to Mabilia:

My dearest Mabilia,

It has been deeply rewarding and humbling to get to know you and understand your leadership challenges.  The leadership challenges and how you address them are not so different from my own leadership challenges and how I address them.  I have learned the most from other women – where we have been able to share our challenges and successes.  Your experience is similar to mine.  The women in your micro-credit organization do more than just lend money to women’s businesses; they also strive to improve women’s lives by educating them in accounting, business, health, self-esteem, and first aid.  They feel responsible to do more.  You understand that women need to improve their education level in order to improve their lives and their family’s life.  I seek to do similar work at a corporate level in America. 

When I read the summary of your conversation circle, what resonated most deeply with me is that what I consider basic education is not common worldwide.  I believe education is the cornerstone of why I have been successful.  I hope this education will become more prevalent so that women and men will be able to share their gifts for the benefit of all.

Mabilia, I truly appreciate all the work you are doing on behalf of your community and hope we can find a way to help each other with our journeys.  Hugs, Wendi

Mi queridisima Mabilia,

Ha sido gratificante conocerte, entender tus obstáculos de liderazgo y como tú los diriges, no son tan diferentes de mis propios desafíos de liderazgo y como yo los manejo.  Yo he aprendido mucho de otras mujeres-donde nosotras hemos sido capaces de compartir nuestros desafíos y éxitos.

Tu experiencia es similar a la mía. Las mujeres en tu organización de micro-crédito hacen más que solo prestar dinero para los negocios de las mujeres; ellas también se esfuerzan por mejorar las vidas de las mujeres, educándolas en negocios, salud, autoestima y primeros auxilios.  Ellas se sientes responsables de hacer más. Tú entiendes que las mujeres necesitan mejorar su nivel de educación para mejorar sus vidas y las de sus familias.  Yo busco hacer algo similar, trabajar en un  nivel corporativo en América.

      Cuando yo leo el sumario de la conversación de tu círculo, el cual ha resonado más profundamente conmigo, es que yo considero que la educación básica no es común en el mundo entero. Yo creo que esta educación es la piedra angular de por qué yo he sido exitosa. Espero que esta educación se vuelva más común para que mujeres y hombres sean capaces de compartir sus talentos o regalos para el beneficio de todos.

  Mabilia, sinceramente aprecio todo el trabajo que tu estas hacienda en nombre de tu comunidad y espero que nosotras podamos encontrar la forma de ayudarnos todos con nuestros trayectos.  Abrazos, Wendi

Biography of Convener Rocío Gonzalez

Rocío worked for ten years as legal adviser, social worker and satellite coordinator for Common Hope in San Rafael, Guatemala.  This organization partners with over 2,700 children and their families in 17 villages outside of Antigua and Guatemala City, to sustain and improve health care, housing, education and family development.  Rocío developed partnerships between Common Hope and local communities to help families gain access to those programs and empower family members.  She uses the power of story to illustrate the hope and inspiration that grows from the challenging conditions in which many dwell.

Rocío is continuing her path in the development community with a new organization through which she will manage youth programs in different parts of Guatemala.  Along with this, Rocío is collaborating with leaders in Seattle to develop a Leadership Initiative that will provide a program for local leaders to receive an inspired reflective training on leadership and collaboration.

Rocío was an iLEAP Fellow in 2010 and participated in their training program in Seattle, Washington to enhance her leadership skills.  iLEAP is an international nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire and renew social leaders and global citizens through values-based leadership programs.  The program fosters collaboration with social change leaders in Asia, Africa and Latin America to build regional networks of change leaders who are committed to building strong global partnerships for social change.  After she received this training, Rocío translated some of her reflections into Spanish, so that she could spread the learning to co-workers at her organization. She offered sessions focused on leadership, collaboration and communication, and called the workshop iSHARE from iLEAP.

Rocío’s Work at Common Hope

Dave and Betty Huebsch established Common Hope (CH) in 1986.  They focused their attention on the remote village of Santiago Atitlán, where 40,000 people lived in stark poverty.  When they asked parents in the village how they could best be helped, parents expressed a great yearning to educate their children to have a path to a better future.  The early years focused on helping educate the children by finding US sponsors to help bear the cost of this education.  At the height of the civil war in Guatemala the Huebsch’s had to relocate to the Antigua valley, where it was safer to work.  In the 1990s, Common Hope expanded its programs to include health care, housing and social work support for students and their families.  They understood that a child’s success in school depends on their family’s health, safety, and stability.

As part of this organization, Rocío has worked with over 100 families in Guatemala on issues of environmental sustainability, healthcare, education, and legal support.  She has established important partnerships between CH and local communities, which further enhances the effectiveness of CH’s programs.  Rocío often acts as a translator between the rural families and donors; this has been one of her more difficult challenges. During these times she focuses on the relationships she has with the families, and the power of story to illustrate the hope and inspiration that grows within the challenging conditions in which many dwell.

Rocío is part of a group of women who gather regularly outside of their regular routine and commitments to talk, laugh and support each other.  The group is diverse in age and interests, yet they share a common bond in leveraging their strengths to support each other.

The women were surprised when they were asked to share experiences and opinions regarding women’s leadership.  They weren’t sure that they had anything to share; yet as they ventured into the Conversation, they found that they had much to share and they expanded their normal conversation to include additional voices.

Conversation Circle

In the Conversation Circle, the Conveners explored four questions:

  1. What do you care about in your community and in what projects have you participated?
    1. As you engaged in this work, what skills have you used?
    2. What additional skills or knowledge would you like to gain?
    3. How do imagine you might develop these skills?

1.         The participants of Rocío’s conversation are passionate about their service to the greater community, especially related to health, rural development, environmentalism, gender equity and education.  They are strong advocates for children, and are working in areas of family planning, children’s advocacy, population growth, domestic violence and reducing negative stereotypes toward women.  In their work they often take initiative to undertake projects and sometimes feel that they are not doing enough (even though they are doing much).  They have focused on belonging, serving as counsel for friends and having respect for morals and values.

2.         This group offered a long list of internal and external skills they utilize in their work.  They realized that to be in service to others there is some self-work needed.  The internal self-work skills include self-care, tolerance, self-esteem, humility, patience, being positive and taking responsibility. The external skills they noted included visioning and working toward goals, taking on responsibility and motivating others.

3.         Many of these women were educated late in their lives, and they are hungry to continue learning and to keep the door open to learning for others.  Some of the skills they identified are related to overcoming gender roles in their country, including being proactive and straightforward, breaking shyness and silence, taking initiative, daring to think and do big things, learning a new language, setting personal boundaries, becoming better group leaders and acknowledging the skills they already have.  Other identified skills are related to using women’s strengths more frequently, including listening, teaching children well, practicing patience and helping others work through stressful situations, making connections, and communicating.

4.         The Conversation participants identified a few hurdles to gaining the desired skills, such as domestic violence, that need to be overcome before skills might be improved.  Many of the skill development ideas focus on educating children (as they are the future), creating support groups for women’s leadership conversations, training women to be confident, honest and compassionate, continuing to meet together, listening to others, looking for mentors and listening to women from different generations.  There was a sense that they are already doing many of these items and that they are on a good path to develop their skills. The women also focused on more formal means of learning including study, reading books, vocational training and direct practice.

Kitchen Cabinet Letter to Rocío:

Dear Rocío,

It is clear that you care deeply about women and families!  You recognize the importance for women to come together, as you say, to talk and laugh and become good friends despite differences in age and interests.

All of us in the Kitchen Cabinet were profoundly touched when the women you convened expressed surprise that others would be interested in their thoughts.  This is the essence of this Project ~ as women come together they deepen their appreciation for their importance, individually and collectively.  This is how women affirm their value. 

We treasure each of the women who participated in the conversation you convened, and we are inspired by how they contribute to their community.  We are indeed very interested in what they are thinking, and hope that they will remain connected to one another and to the larger network of women in other countries who share common concerns, energy and creativity.  Together we can create changes that make a better world for everyone.

With much love and good wishes in all that you do,


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