PLANO, Texas — Guatemala may have “the largest economy in Central America” according to the World Bank, but this fact does not reflect the painful realities that far too many struggling Guatemalans face. World Bank data indicates that Guatemala stands as the fifth most impoverished economy in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), “with persistently high rates of poverty and inequality.”
Unfortunately, this harsh reality rings especially true for the country’s indigenous populations. Despite more than 40% of Guatemala’s population self-identifying as indigenous in a recent census, research analyzed by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) shows that poverty impacts 75% of the country’s indigenous people.
Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable given the gender inequality and injustice in the country. About 51% of Guatemala’s adult women face unemployment and the country has the largest divide in gender inequality in Latin America according to SERniña, an organization dedicated to helping girls in Guatemala. It is in this environment that nonprofits like Friendship Bridge operate. The organization works to help struggling women in Guatemala, many of them indigenous, receive the support they need to create a better and brighter future for themselves and their families.
What Does Friendship Bridge Do?
Friendship Bridge operates using a mixture of microcredit lending with health services and skills-based training to extend support to Guatemalan women. The Borgen Project spoke with the president and CEO of Friendship Bridge, Karen Larson, to find out more about this innovative program, known as Microcredit Plus, and learn how the organization’s services are uniquely equipped to help struggling Guatemalan women.
Larson explains that the average woman served by Friendship Bridge is an indigenous mother of four who likely does not speak Guatemala’s official language, Spanish. Her household income is likely rather limited as well, with Friendship Bridge’s site estimating an average income of “$1.11 to $4.16 a day.” Under these circumstances, it can be hard for women to obtain a small loan from a regular banking establishment to help them improve their circumstances and their local businesses in areas like agriculture or handcrafted goods. At this very juncture, Friendship Bridge steps in.
Each woman who receives a small loan from Friendship Bridge enters into what is known by the nonprofit as a Trust Bank. A Trust Bank is a group of around 10 women on average who help cover each other’s loans and meet for mandatory training sessions at least once a month. At these training sessions, Friendship Bridge provides valuable lessons that help the women learn essential business, healthcare and life skills. These lessons add the “plus” to Friendship Bridge’s microcredit program and play an important role in combating some of the problems plaguing the country on a case-by-case basis.
Combating Malnutrition in Guatemala
Malnutrition is one of the prominent issues Guatemalans face, especially indigenous groups. The World Bank indicates that Guatemala not only has the highest chronic malnutrition rate in Latin America and the Caribbean but also has the fourth-highest chronic malnutrition rate globally. According to World Bank data, “chronic childhood malnutrition (and stunting) affects 47% of all children under the age of 5, 58% of indigenous children and 66% of children in the lowest income quintile.”
Friendship Bridge has taken steps to assist women with healthcare issues like malnutrition. Larson explains that part of the mandatory training done through Microcredit Plus includes teaching women about the importance of proper nutrition methods and providing “healthy garden skills” related to topics like growing leafy greens.
Similarly, Friendship Bridge takes a stand against other nutrition-based concerns in the country like food insecurity. Data from the World Food Program USA indicates that close to 50% of Guatemalans cannot “afford the cost of the basic food basket.” The IWGIA notes that food insecurity in indigenous Guatemalan populations is on the rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on indigenous people’s abilities to work or sell their products.
Friendship Bridge swiftly responded to the lack of food security discovered in its own program during the pandemic. Larson says the organization “raised about $60,000 from U.S. donors,” which helped support the delivery of food to 3,000 women immediately after the country “shut down” to help women through at least a few months of food scarcity. As a whole, Friendship Bridge’s internal data shows that about two in three women in its programs are able to increase “the number and quality of meals consumed by their families.”
Migration in Guatemala
While these efforts clearly make an impact in the lives of the women in Friendship Bridge’s programs, the organization also strives to expand its offerings to address one of the broadest scale issues Guatemala faces — migration. The Washington Post reported on April 1, 2021, that U.S. immigration agents processed more unaccompanied minors from Guatemala since the beginning of 2021 than from any other nation in the world. The reason behind the migration was primarily poverty, and more specifically, hunger.
To compound matters, recent hurricanes have caused devastation to impoverished households, displacing people from their homes in areas of the country like Huehuetenango and Alta Verapaz near the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Survey data from the International Organization for Migration reviewed by Politico revealed that “at least one member in one out of every 10 displaced homes said they planned to migrate in the next 12 months.”
Bridge to Success
To help combat this migration, Friendship Bridge recently launched its Bridge to Success program. The program aims to assist Guatemalan women who have what Larson calls, “a livelihood sustaining business” capable of the kind of expansion and development that leads to greater local employment.
Larson explains that Bridge to Success will help provide these women not only with loans to start expanding their businesses but also with an intensive mentoring program to help them develop business plans and provide technical support. Friendship Bridge will focus efforts within this program on areas experiencing high migration or recent climate disasters.
“Migration is high because people have lost hope,” Larson explains. For this reason, Friendship Bridge is trying to inspire hope and empowerment while creating job opportunities in the communities.
Friendship Bridge’s Significance in Guatemala
Friendship Bridge shows unwavering dedication to improving the lives of those facing the most difficult paths to success in Guatemala. From healthcare to economic concerns, Friendship Bridge is making important investments to help address the many obstacles that local Guatemalan women face.
– Brett Grega