Monday, October 15, 2012

The Women Behind the "Cooperativa" Caught Between Two Worlds

       Dorcasa Pol coordinates the Ut'z Bat'z, translated from Quiché to Spanish as 'buen hilo,' or in English, "good thread," a Fair Trade Shop in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, the product of an organized effort with local women and the leadership and resources of Francien Wouters from the Netherlands. Dorcasa, now in her fifth year with project, boasts that the cooperative has 22 women members and is legally registered with the Consejo directivo del instituto de cooperativos (INACOP) as a non-profit organization or  "sin fines lucrativos, ni políticos." In her mid to late twenties, Dorcasa spoke of the gains, benefits, and struggles of the cooperative in a soft-spoken voice as she nursed her infant. The goal of the cooperative is to open opportunities for women in the community to participate in the collective process of achieving successful development through their creative talents and business savvy. Although the cooperative has
achieved a relative success as evidence in the neatly arranged shop filled with colorful and unique handicrafts, the task has not been easy but rather frustrating, difficult and seemingly impossible due to deep-seeded, complicated conflicts ranging from the business end to the cultural role of women and to how change is exceedingly slow and fraught with strenuous challenges.

       Ut'z Bat'z is a women's cooperative handicraft project, and is part of a foundation called En Mi Salsa, so named by founder Francien Wouters to accentuate the expression 'to be in one's element.' Wouters founded the project and established the business in 2008 as part of her dream to fill a need for economic development and simultaneously help the community in Chichicastenango. Wouters studied anthropology, did fieldwork in Guatemala, traveled throughout South America, worked for a travel agency and has a residence in Antigua while also residing in her home country (read more about Wouters at In the Foundation's website (, the purpose statement underscores its intent to offer the community of women and their children social and economic opportunities and encourage independence, all for the sake of a better life. The primary means to accomplish this is by directly purchasing the product from the women who make them thus ensuring "fair" payment. Additionally, their statements highlight the regular training that they offer to the craftsman to improve the quality of the product; and that their products are dye-fast, do not shrink, and contain no toxic dyes, although it's not clear which resources or materials they use contribute to these outcomes.

        Many other claims are made in the websites' statements but are not directly connected to the practical operations of the cooperative, such as "environmental friendliness" and "sustainable products," unless of course, these are accomplished by the Foundation's use of their own materials or resources. No doubt, the Foundation's claims of targeting their efforts to the most poverty stricken areas are verifiable since Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America; 56 percent of its people are living in poverty. Illiteracy rates are proportionately high in Guatemala as mentioned in the Foundation's statements, especially in communities such as Chichicastenango, but it’s not clear what is being done by the Foundation to address this issue. 
       However, the Foundation's stated outcome that the participating women will eventually "become their own bosses" is hardly achievable, at least in the near future, according to Dorcasa. From the outset, the Ut'z Bat'z cooperative has been confronted with resistance, especially by the mostly male-dominated businesses. The gender gap sharply defines the extent to which women can work outside of their home or earn their own income. "Machismo" and its long- standing existence in the culture is the root of the problem, explains Dorcasa.  In the household, it's the male partner that makes the decisions, which means that the woman is not allowed to work outside of the home, nor become educated, and has no recourse in her reproduction rights. The male partner has the upper hand since he is the main breadwinner. The woman is controlled by the male's culturally sanctioned devices, whether physical or psychological. Thus, the woman suffers abuse if she pursues a confrontation with her mate. This is the reality that women live by everyday, and are powerless in every sense of the word, especially since they are in dire economic circumstances. One of the greatest obstacles to improve the quality of their lives is illiteracy. Because women lack educational opportunities they're unable to access available resources outside of their tightly knit communities.
        Overcoming the multiple obstacles the participating women face in their efforts to gain economic independence by their own means may be difficult and frustrating. But the women are not easily deterred. There is no doubt that a major part of their struggle lies in the fact that their biggest hurdle are the expectations and traditions imposed upon them as members of their culture.

        The Ut'z Bat'z store is located on the edge of the market square (the area where the farm animals are sold) and the offical directions are 8a Calle 3-14, Zona 1, Chichicastenango. The website address is and the email address is

October 6, 2012


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