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When women lead, everyone wins: the story of Ixmucane in Guatemala

The Ixmucane coordinating team

March 8, 2017

By Jeannethe Lara

Ixmucane is a women’s organization established in 1993 in Peten, a province in the north-west of Guatemala. It formed while women were returning home from Refugee camps in the bordering Mexican communities of Quintana Ro, Campeche and Chiapas.

The 300 members — women 18 and older – pay annual dues of $2, do community work, elect a Board and have a staff to run the organization. The goal is to implement a strategic plan focused on community development, promotion of gender equality, language, culture and income, and to address issues of trauma caused by conflict, displacement and relocation. Many women, in the process of being displaced, exiled and then resettled, lost their ancestral property. They also lost family members, as well as the connection with their communities and their culture when they had to return to unknown places. Ixmucane was – and continues to be – a lifeline.

The main components of the work are skills and knowledge development, networking, lobbying and advocacy, in relation to rights, leadership, income generation and life improvement. Decision-making is key. It takes longer as all members count, but they are a community looking for effective results instead of fast ones. PWRDF is a good match because it looks for long-term development with long-term results.

How did Ixmucane begin?

In the late ‘80s Guatemalan women in exile at refugee camps in Mexico were delegated to address the food crisis and malnutrition experienced by elders and the children. Women were trained in leadership and agriculture production and gained experience in community organizing. Then during the resettlement process in the ‘90s, women realized that owning their own land was crucial for establishing communities. But Guatemalan law dictated that men, as heads of the family, had ownership of the land. The training the women had received while in the refugee camps gave them the confidence to fight for co-ownership of the land. Although it was challenging, they succeeded. Women now co-own land and continue to play key leadership roles in six communities across Peten.

Almost 20 years after the return to Peten, women and families continue to survive and defend the land that provides for them. Ixmucane women envision a future very much aligned with the Agenda 30 and the Sustainable Development Goals aiming to end poverty (goal 1) to have zero hunger (goal 2) to achieve good health (goal 3) and to Gender Equality (goal 5). As the UN says “poverty is more than lack of income or resources — it includes lack of basic services, such as education, social discrimination and exclusion including lack of participation in decision making”.

Read more about some of the women of Ixmucane.

Ixmucane and gender equality

Ixmucane women understand very well during exile that gender inequality will perpetuate poverty in women and their families. So they promote inclusion, decision-making and leadership skills to its members. They know that when you empower a woman, the whole family benefits. When women know their rights, have access to education, health services, the justice system, and land to be food secure and promote good agriculture practices, and when they have representation in political decisions, their families and the community will grow with them.

The women of Ixmucane affirm that despite the challenges, their work opened a space for them and sustained the development of their communities. “Being in Ixmucane is not a game; as mothers, we sacrifice time for our families and sometimes got into problems for the good of the women and the community,” says one of the members. Many express that the most significant achievement was to learn how to read and write and to lose their fear of speaking in public, which improved their self-esteem and gave them further options for education. Overcoming illiteracy opened the door for many to become teachers, to study further or to earn an income from agriculture – such as permaculture, planting fruits, animal raising — weaving, or running a store.

Women are now adept at political analysis; they understand their rights and are able to defend themselves. They are certain that without their participation in the peace accords and the return process, nothing would have been possible for them or for co-owning land. Many became leaders in local community associations, parents’ associations and some have been elected for provincial and municipal councils.

This empowerment has led to greater gender balance in their communities. Many men have changed their view of women and also of the role played by both mothers and fathers within the family. Women understand their reproductive rights, and are able to identify and address violence against them. Members’ daughters are becoming aware of gender and political issues thanks to their mothers’ education and guidance. There is a decrease in the number of children per home, which allows for more resources to feed and educate the family.

Ixmucane in the future

There are still hurdles to overcome:

  • Finding opportunities for women to expand their knowledge
  • options for a good life
  • reduced funding
  • difficulty securing financial recognition for their work; the criminalization for defending the land and its resources.
  • Obtaining very low agricultural production value of the land
  • the threat of the new National Development plan ‘Katum 2032’, which aims to urbanize rural Guatemala, push urban population to grow from 58% to 79% and bring to Peten tourism development, agribusiness, oil exploration, major transportation infrastructure, control of water cycle and a hydroelectric dam

Despite the needs and scarcity, there is hope. Women dream of running a restaurant, opening an arts and crafts place, establishing a cultural heritage and agriculture school. They want to improve the office building and offer accommodation services to support women during the legal process in cases of gender-based violence.

With Ixmucane we witness a true grass roots women’s movement organized and led by local rural and Indigenous women looking for a good life for their families across Peten. They believe in women, the good impact of their development on their families and their community and work for it. “Love is what Ixmucane members have,” one woman said. One thing we tend to forget: a community takes longer than 20 years to be built, and sure, takes lots of love.

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