I WORK FOR A CANADIAN non-governmental organization in Guatemala, high up in the mountains of Comitancillo, San Marcos.
According to the Human Development Index, Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and has one of the worst rates of literacy, maternal mortality, and unemployment.
Canada ranks fourth.
Guatemala ranks 118th.
While Comitancillo is the poorest municipality of Guatemala, the women with whom I work are radiant and strong. A few weeks ago we went to a nearby village to participate in the closing ceremony of one of our leadership classes. I met one of the most empowered women I have ever known, a bright and motivated mother of 12 children, 10 of whom are living.
Cleofa has been receiving non-formal education classes for the past eight months. While not everyone in her class has learned as much as she, Cleofa is a model of change in her community.
She told me that her husband said if he couldn’t attend the classes, which are run for only women, then she should go and learn as much as she could about health and cleanliness, sexuality and menstruation, and human rights.
She told me women have rights to participate, to speak out, and that she tries to share these messages with her family and neighbours. Cleofa said the important thing isn’t just to listen and talk, but to do.
Change comes through action, she said.
Looking around the mud house in which the class is led, I saw many brilliant, hopeful women.
They had been arduously saving what little money they could scrape together for the last eight months as part of the class, and were about to have their savings matched by my organization. The 1000 quetzales (about $150 USD) they were about to receive was probably the most cash they had ever had at one time.
But looking around the house at their beautiful smiling faces, I also saw signs of intense malnutrition in the women and their children. Cracked, dry skin, bloodshot eyes, discoloured hair.
And I remembered that this is one of the poorest villages in the poorest municipality of one of the poorest countries in the world.
Malnutrition is a huge problem in these communities. Access to potable water is extremely limited. People don’t have access to the food they need and even if they had access to it, they wouldn’t afford to buy it.
While many of the people in this community dedicate their lives to growing nutritional foods like brussels sprouts, their produce all gets imported to the United States and Canada.
Making Conscious Choices
In the city, we sometimes get disconnected from the food we eat. It is easy to forget where our clothes come from.
But no matter how many water projects we do and how many savings matches we hand out, until we are ready to pay what our clothes and food are worth, these communities will continue to live in poverty.
So here is my holiday message to you: don’t buy things you don´t need, and think about what is behind everything you think about buying. Chances are those shoes or that purse or those jeans were made by small children in Asia.
Chances are the food you are buying was grown by farmers who weren’t paid enough for their produce to buy food for their family, let alone a holiday dinner.
Buy fair trade.
Fair trade ensures that the people on the production side are being paid a fair wage. Fair trade products sometimes cost more. But the reason they cost more is because someone in a completely different part of the world was actually paid for their work in the creation of this product.
Check out stores like Ten Thousand Villages or your local fair trade shops. We won’t save the world by buying fair trade, and far greater change is necessary, but if the movement picks up, larger companies will eventually have to start paying workers a fair wage.
Consumer pressure has forced all kinds of multinationals to go green. Consumer pressure could also force multinationals to go ethical.
It’s not a lot to ask. As Cleofa said, change comes through action.
If you’re interested in learning more about where your clothes come from, check out Matador member Kelsey Timmerman’s book, Where am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes.