Farming toward equity: Transforming gender roles in Guatemala

September 29, 2019

By facilitating collaboration between women and men as researchers, Herlinda Matías Ramos is also transforming her community’s understanding of gender roles.

Herlinda Matias Ramos grew up in the highlands of Guatemala, a country with one of the highest rates of poverty in the world.

In Guatemala, Indigenous peoples form more than 60 per cent of the country’s population. Centuries of colonization mean they now hold less than two per cent of the land. Most live on less than $2 per day.

So as a young Indigenous Maya woman, Herlinda faced an especially large number of barriers. Her family farmed for subsistence, and she had no access to formal education. And because she was a girl, she was expected to focus only on caring for her household and farm plot.

Yet Herlinda could see the environment changing around her, and she worried about her community’s capacity to survive.

“The impact of climate change is strong and people are not even aware that we are killing ourselves.” She wanted to do something.

Making a career out of supporting other farmers is an unlikely scenario for women in the Global South. Around the world, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization found that only 15 per cent of the world’s extension agents are women.

But our Guatemalan partner organization, ASOCUCH, believes in changing that. The organization works to defend farmers’ rights and strengthen agroecological farming practices through Seeds of Survival.

With rural women worldwide experiencing higher rates than urban women of gender-based violence and sexual abuse, ASOCUCH also made gender equality a core part of its programming.

The organization hires local people – including an equal proportion of women – to foster transformative change on farms and in households. In 2015, ASOCUCH asked Herlinda if she would like to become a community facilitator.

The young woman enthusiastically accepted, excited by the opportunity to receive training and help increase knowledge in her community. “For me, it is really important to share knowledge with different groups of people.”

ASOCUCH trained Herlinda in ways to encourage and support women’s involvement in community work. They also taught her how to facilitate CIALs, an innovative agroecology-based community development model developed by FIPAH, our partner organization in Honduras.

Today, Herlinda helps farmers of all genders learn from each other, identify common challenges, and plan research to carry out in their fields. Her group’s current focus is developing better rainwater harvesting techniques.

“Our only access to water here is from the rain, so in our community we are facing a shortage of water,” explains Herlinda. The results are promising, and Herlinda takes pride in seeing the farmers in her CIAL put in practice what they learn in training.

She also believes her work is helping to change the social norms that give rise to power imbalances between genders in her community. “We women are always part of the work of the CIAL, just as much as men,” she says. “The recognition of women’s rights hasn’t been an easy process in our community.

But we see the situation for women improve, little by little, in their roles as mothers, workers, farmers, housewives.” ASOCUCH hopes to build on this success by integrating more training and education about gender-based and sexual violence in all farmer training.

The most transformative change that has come from her work so far is probably the one she personally experienced.

“When I was a child I never imagined I would get to change many things in my life. I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to work and fight for the right things,” she says. “Now, I’ve made efforts to move forward. I trusted myself. I’ve achieved many things. Now I am a person with more ability to learn, to share my knowledge and to feel confident with many people around me.”

Today, at 24 years of age, Herlinda sees no limit to her ability to continue seeding change in her community.

“I want to continue growing and learning in my life. This is the moment for me to be confident.”