In 1990 Sister Anne Marie Gardiner, SSND and Sister Marie Chiodo, DW went to El Salvador in the midst of a bloody civil war. At that time, they met with the women in a remote mountainous village near the Honduran border with the sound of guns in the background. We asked the women, “How can we help?” Their reply, “Tell our story and help sell our crafts” which we did resolutely for many years. We realized, however, that this did not provide year round income for the women and their families.
In 2002 Sister Anne Marie met with a group of women leaders in El Salvador and posed the question: “Dream with me. How can we assist women in getting out of inhumane poverty?” The group’s consensus: start small businesses in the villages so the women can work near home so as to be close to their children; make or produce things needed locally so as to keep money in the local economy. This meeting and those values became the basis in 2003 of Salvadoran Enterprises for Women (SEW).
What emerged from that dreaming session is a process that has evolved to this day. SEW’s vision is “Economic and Social Justice for Women through Small Business Development.” Our major objectives in helping women start businesses in their villages is twofold: to bring women together to explore what’s entailed in starting a business (we do not fund single person ventures); and to empower women through workshops in self-esteem, legal rights, gender equality as well as communication, leadership and management.
Exploring ideas on what’s entailed in a business.To accomplish these objectives we collaborate with the (CIS) Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad in San Salvador to coordinate our three Salvadoran staff, SEW’s empowerment team. They in turn broker trainings with the University of Central America, government training offices and with the Salvadoran Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health when a SEW business requires that.
From the beginning of their desire to start a business, the women meet on site with our staff, Iris, Maira and Delmy for up to twelve months. They help the potential business group identify what type business they wish to pursue; what will be the markets for their products; what training they need. During this time, the women also participate in human development workshops facilitated by the staff.
The next step: the SEW staff assist the business women to research a budget and devise a beginning business plan. These aspects are incorporated into a proposal that is sent to the SEW Board in the United States. Once reviewed and given the SEW Board’s approval, the SEW staff work with the women to acquire training in business methods, marketing, product develop-ment and safety. The women, now SEW business women, continue the empowerment workshops with the SEW staff to develop leadership and confidence.
The SEW staff are on site in the various businesses on a regular basis and written reports are submitted by each business to the SEW Board annually. Additional updates and reports occur orally through mail and Skype and annual visits to El Salvador. It can take 4 to 6 years for a business to be self-sustaining.
This is the secret to SEW’s success: the ongoing accompaniment by our staff over those years. SEW’s story and that of the women does not end with developing successful businesses. We are proud that many of our women serve on municipal and regional councils – not the usual practice in their culture. They are being recognized and they are taking on greater responsibility for themselves, their families and the community.
Sisters Anne Marie and Marie and board members meet with all the women in the various businesses once a year. It is an opportunity to review their plans and deal with their successes and failures. It is an awesome opportunity to see the women come into their own in terms of addressing the meeting, having their voices heard and celebrating their achievements.
Currently, SEW has sixteen businesses employing 123 women. Three SEW women are now studying at the University, while maintaining their role in the businesses. Two are pursuing degrees in business and one is studying law. Many of our women have been working on obtaining their elementary and high school degrees while working in the businesses.
We have heard them tell of the change in their family situations as a result of working. Their husbands and children, slowly, have come to help with chores!
“Before working, I was too shy to say my own name. I had never left home. I said words teaspoon size.” - Carolina
“Here we discuss our work, our needs, and our plans. And it is also a place where we can talk about our lives as women.” -Tita
“We are not only daughters, housewives and mothers…we are more than that. We can be things we have not even dreamed of.” –Clara
“It all starts in or families. Girls are not valued. They say, ‘Oh, you are a woman, you don’t need to study. Why? Are women not smart? We are talking differently to our sons and daughters now.” - Cristobal