In depth with the backstrap weaving cooperatives in Guatemala

In Guatemala many women are denied their rights.The country has a long history of gender disparities and discrimination against women. During the years of the civil war more than 200,000 people died, and most of those people were part of the Maya population. The women were particularly affected, as violence against women and rape were systematically used as weapons of war. Long after the war formally ended in 1996, women in Guatemala continued suffering from gender disparities, as a consequence of the long-standing discrimination against women during the war. As a response to the oppression of women, civil society organizations emerged after the end of the civil war, aiming to spread knowledge about the oppression of women and express their commitment to supporting women’s rights. The organizations have played a significant role in the processes of improving women’s living conditions in postwar Guatemala. Many of these organizations are cooperatives, which are created by people who fight for a common goal and are characterized by the desire to work together for change. The members contribute on a equal basis, and share the control according to the one-vote principle.

With no support at home to raise the income needed for food, water, or shelter, women chose to step up and create opportunities for themselves. By banding together, these women were able to find a sense of belonging and strength in one another. Some of the values that connected these women were empowerment, self-help, democracy, equality, equity, and most importantly, solidarity. These values continue to connect them today, and as a result, they are stronger together than apart.

Women organized in groups and started forming partnerships with women from nearby villages. For example, one group would grow organic cotton while another would harvest and prepare natural herbs for the dyeing process. Next, women would need to spin the cotton into thread, dye it and then weave it into exceptional tapestries. Although many cooperatives started during the civil war, many women didn’t begin to see a profit for their hard work until the tourists began coming back to Guatemala after the war formally ended.

In Guatemala, traditional gender norms and the “machismo” culture have stunted the growth and success for the women.The communities are profoundly conservative and patriarchal, leaving the women with few rights and almost no power throughout their homes. The women are expected to do the majority of the informal work, such as cleaning, cooking and taking care of the children. Additionally, domestic violence is a prevalent method of solving partner problems in the Mayan culture. Indigenous girls are among the country’s most disadvantaged groups, since they are often expected to take care of younger siblings, leave school to support their family, or get married early.

“What I realize is that the man, as everyone says, when one gets married, the woman has to do everything in the house, but it should not be like that. What I have seen in different families, like my friends’ families, is that they treat women as if they were a work object. “Miguel, son to one of the artisans in Chirijox.

“In this time there are almost no women who are leaders. There is no participation of them because here in the community it is very closed. Here the husbands are sometimes very jealous and then they do not let the women participate.” – Ana Maria, daughter to one of the artisans in Chuacruz.

Women often lack the opportunity to seek out better paying jobs or experiences because they are expected to perform these duties daily. Pressures and criticism from community and family members trap women, because the beliefs of new norms being immodest or too forward are so ingrained in the cultural mindset. Still today, there are women who have to ask their husbands or fathers for permission to do something as simple as to go out for coffee with girlfriends.

Another major inhibition for women in Guatemala is a lack of access to resources and education


Caring for the home and family while breastfeeding and weaving doesn’t allow for the income needed to gain independence and self-owned assets. Lack of education has a major impact as it affects all aspects of their lives: reading, writing, business practices, knowledge of their own reproductive system, technology, navigating relationships, etc.

Participating in a women’s cooperative, such as the ones who partner with Maya Traditions, can increase the possibility of self-determination and independence among women.

“Thanks to the meetings, now I am not afraid of saying my opinion, I always talk to my husband about what we are going to do. This freedom, I did not feel before, because I was more dependent on my husband”. – Rosita, Chuacruz

“After the meetings with the group I am now a free woman, and I have shared things with my husband and my family. Now I can go anywhere, and my husband is not telling me ‘do not go’. We have more freedom with him, with my husband. ” – Maria, San Juan.

There is good news, though. With the Fair Trade movement came an understanding that producers of coffee, crafts, and agriculture were not being treated fairly, so with the teamwork of a Dutch development agency, led by a man named Max Havelaar, the principles of Fair Trade became an international expectation. The early Fair Trade model contained an initiative stating that “A guaranteed minimum price to protect producers from any potential falls in the global market.”. This has been  translated into Fair Trade Standards that all companies using the label must abide by. Since then, a consortium of Fair Trade labeling, best practices, inspection policies, and certification organizations have popped up, helping to ensure, among other ideals, that people are paid a fair price for their work. The Fair Trade movement unites cooperatives to advocate for a fair wage, a very important aspect for women empowerment, leadership and economic development, and at the same time a way to attain local sustainability.

The world of women’s cooperatives has changed norms and ideals over the years and, I believe that here in Guatemala we are beginning to see a shift in women’s independence and role in their families and homes. More young women are pursuing a college education with dreams of becoming lawyers, doctors, social workers, engineers and architects. Education is slowly becoming more attainable for all the children in a family, not just the boys.

“I want to see a change in the future. I want to see women participating as a committee, or I would like a woman who is a mayor. Someday I would love to see a woman as mayor, and wearing the name of women on high, this is my dream. We have to keep fighting and looking for opportunities for the community to improve. “– Ana Maria, Chuacruz.

During my time as an intern at Maya Traditions, I have been able to witness the positive change myself. The women I have talked with have shown an increased self-esteem and self-determination, many of them expressed that they are now feeling a greater freedom as well as an improved knowledge about their rights. They also talked about the future with hopefulness, where they dream of seeing female leaders for their communities and where the machismo attitude disappears. I’m convinced that participating in a women’s cooperative is having an impact. Not only for women, but also for their spouses, children and society as a whole. Together, the force for change is bigger, You have an opportunity to join us and Make The Difference.

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