March 4, 2018
By Jeannethe Lara
Jeannethe Lara is a Development Program Coordinator for PWRDF.
Mirsa Araceli Chinchilla Godoy was born in Josefinos, Guatemala in 1981. Just three months later as the civil war emerged, “the massacre of Josefinos” forced her family to escape under cover of night. To prevent being discovered by soldiers, her mother covered her mouth to stop her from making any noise.
Mirsa’s family survived the massacre – executed by the military and the Kaibiles, a Guatemalan special elite force – by fleeing to Campeche, Mexico. She spent her childhood in a refugee camp in poverty, living for years in a nylon tent. Only when the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid and the UN High Commission for Refugees granted them refugee status were they given food assistance, a parcel of land for a house and work permits. They all managed to survive.
At 13, she met her husband with whom she would have three daughters, her first born one year later. Mirsa joined Ixmucane, a group of Guatemalan women who reunited to defend their rights while in exile, and women’s rights during the return process that was negotiated with the Guatemalan government. The return in 1995 was difficult. They had no home and lived in overcrowded places until land for a house and agriculture was given.
In 1998 Mirsa separated from her husband. A single mom at 17 with three children, she moved to her father’s community, becoming a member of the community co-op and taking all the responsibilities of a male head of family. This entailed doing labour for the community and working the land for corn and beans – a situation many widows and single mothers faced to demonstrate they were able and fit to become direct members of the co-op.
Upon return, Ixmucane received support from groups such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, PWRDF and the Guatemalan organization COMADEP. Conditions for women and their families were improved through education to get better stoves, raise animals, and plant fruits and vegetables. PWRDF funds contributed to leadership training, to the group havings its own location in St. Elena and to supporting the organization’s grass roots structure. Ixmucane was able to fight for and obtain co-ownership of the land when titles were given to families; it preserved the right of women to own land.
In 2002, Mirsa became the Ixmucane board treasurer and held the position for two years. There she lost her fear of public speaking and learned how to work with the community. She gained the skills and confidence to become the school parents’ association coordinator, the treasurer of the community coop and the assistant to the Municipal Council.
In 2015-16 Mirsa returned to the position of Ixmucane treasurer and is now the vice-president of the co-op where she lives. Not only is she a decision maker in the community, but she is in a better financial situation because she owns land and a business – Ixmucane facilitated funds so she could buy three cows; currently she raises and sells cattle and produces milk and cheese. This improves her nutrition as well as her income.
“Perhaps Ixmucane never gave me huge financial resources but it gave me knowledge,” says Mirsa. “Without it, I would be another person. … What I achieved was thanks to the strength the organization gave me, to know that I have rights and that I was capable of doing things.”
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