Women's Stories  |  ESPERA

How the Global Pandemic Touches the Lives of ESPERA Women in Central America and Mexico

Photo of woman sitting at sewing machine showing her seamstress shop in El Salvador.

Even though it’s only been a couple months, mid- March feels like a lifetime ago. That’s when 15 women – all representatives of ESPERA partner organizations – and ESPERA staff joined for two days of meetings of the ESPERA Evaluation Steering
Committee in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

Together they continued their review and discussion of the 2019 ESPERA program evaluation and made recommendations and plans for the future. They shared ideas about economic initiatives, general loan guidelines, and institutional strengthening support or partners. By all accounts it was a productive gathering of women; it was full of hopeful dialogue about how to best improve ESPERA’s work.

And then COVID-19 happened. Since then, our ESPERA team has quickly shifted from long-term program development to responding to the immediate needs of women and ESPERA partners. María Aminta Rivera Landaverde, a member of ESPERA partner Concertación de Mujeres de Suchitoto in El Salvador, is sewing and selling masks to meet the demands of people in her community who need personal protection to stay safe and keep others safe from COVID-19.

A Shift In Priorities

ESPERA Team Lead Gilda Larios and her colleagues Brenda Valladares Escobar and Eva Martinez immediately started communicating with ESPERA partners in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico via telephone and messaging apps. First, they listened to women talk about their difficult personal situations and raw emotional reactions.

“We heard a variety of things from women. Some are saying ‘Let’s be patient and not afraid,’” said Gilda. “And others are telling us ‘We are afraid. We don’t have much income and we’re scared of economic effects.’” Responses varied, often depending upon how the situation was unfolding in the country where they live (while some countries, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, have enforced strict stay-at-home measures, other countries such as Nicaragua, have imposed few restrictions).

As many of the ESPERA women are small business owners working in the informal economy outside their homes, the requirement to quarantine or the threat of going outside and getting sick means an end to their income – money they rely on for meeting basic daily needs. Although some governments have promised minimal bonus payments to help people pay for food, electricity and water, many people have no financial safety net.

After listening to women, the ESPERA team worked with Mary’s Pence staff and board in the U.S. to brainstorm ways to actively respond to the variety of economic concerns and emotional struggles expressed by women. Although the discussion is on-going, it was decided that with limited emergency funds ESPERA would organize the purchase and delivery of basic food supplies to women most in need.

The ESPERA staff also welcomed the assistance of Margarita O’Farrill, a Mexican psychologist based in El Salvador who has facilitated emotional wellness workshops for ESPERA in the past. Margarita volunteered to counsel ESPERA women feeling
anxious or depressed.

Inspiration and Hope

In spite of all the difficulties and uncertainties for people, the ESPERA team has also found reason to be inspired. They’ve seen the entrepreneurial spirits of women blossom as they find creative ways to adjust their business models to accommodate the unprecedented reality. María Aminta Rivera Landaverde is one example.

A member of ESPERA partner Concertación de Mujeres de Suchitoto in El Salvador, Aminta is the owner of Confecciones Rivera – a seamstress shop where she sews tailor-made clothes for women, men, and children. As a single mother, Aminta has always been proud that her business allows her to be an independent woman capable of supporting her two daughters. But the outbreak of COVID-19 and the Salvadoran government’s fairly immediate response to quarantine the general population brought Aminta’s business – and her income – to an abrupt halt.

“I became really depressed; I couldn’t focus on what little work I had coming in… Every time I listened to the news, I got a headache.” Her anxiety and fear were affecting both her physical and mental health.

Aminta shared her feelings with her ESPERA friends in their online What’s App messaging group. Aminta took Gilda’s advice to reach out to the volunteer psychologist Margarita by phone. Now, Aminta credits Margarita for helping her to slowly emerge from her depression…and think about developing a new business idea. It’s incredible to see how ESPERA women have come up with alternatives to transform their work within the confines of their new reality.

With help from her community Aminta identified a need for masks in this time of COVID-19. Aminta’s social enterprise is responding to an immediate health concern of the community and allowing her to earn income to meet her family’s most basic needs.

There are several women like Aminta who, thanks to a mix of ingenuity and support, have modified their products or services to meet the new demands as a result of COVID-19. Gilda says, “It’s incredible to see how ESPERA women have come up with alternatives to transform their work within the confines of their new reality.”

We Shall Overcome – Together

The success stories are important reminders of the hopeful dialogue and productive planning that was shared during the ESPERA Evaluation Steering Committee meetings on March 17th and 18th. Although the focus has shifted for the moment, the
long-term strategies for ESPERA programming are the same, because as we go through and come out on the other side of COVID-19, the important issues around women and justice remain.

For now, in the midst of this global pandemic, ESPERA women remain committed to doing what they do best. They are creating and maintaining communities of solidarity — walking alongside one another to confront challenges in life as a united force.

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