It can be difficult to work as an international team such as ESPERA at the best of times. It is especially the case during these hard times, as nations scramble to react to the unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic. All countries are enacting different measures. El Salvador, for example, issued a finable 30-day stay-in-place order, while neighboring Nicaragua has yet to take such action–creating confusion, further expounded by restrictions on travel. The public health and economic crisis is not only throwing up borders but throwing into stark relief the divides between rich and poor throughout the world: the relatively secure and the extremely vulnerable.
Women participating in ESPERA fall into this second category, as do all people (overwhelmingly female) working in the “informal” economy. Many in Central America especially are opting to get food and supplies from the big chain supermarkets rather than from local markets. This makes it extremely difficult for small businesses such as the ones run by the women in ESPERA to compete. Many of these shops operate from day to day or week to week, which is hard to do when the situation changes so rapidly and the immediate future is deeply uncertain.
Mary’s Pence has responded by maintaining as much contact with individual women and ESPERA partners coordinators as possible, although this capacity is lessening as some lose access to their cell phones. From the contact our ESPERA team has with participants in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico, they share that women’s emotions about the virus are varied: some feel scared, others hopeful and many fluctuate between the two. Currently Mary’s Pence is exploring the possibility of lending support to shops owned by ESPERA women so that they can continue to supply their communities. We are also looking at the option of providing food or money for women and their families in urgent need. Distribution, however, may be challenging, as travel is limited or prohibited.
None of these responsive measures would be possible without the strong leadership of ESPERA women. Difficult times reveal the necessity of women’s organizing, of having existing structures that can assist in handling crises. One such structure is ESPERA’s new Steering Committee. This committee brings together representatives from each of our 5 partner organizations in El Salvador with staff to collaborate on deciding and designing plans for the entire program. Formed out of last year’s program evaluation, the team is in many ways the result of a much longer process. Women feel confident in voicing their opinions and credit this largely to their prior involvement in ESPERA. It is a confidence that women have spent years creating.
Furthermore, women feel included and they also feel that they are truly part of a program that extends beyond El Salvador and into all of Central America and Mexico. Leaders from different organizations have exchanged best practices and learned from one another by sharing their experiences. They have also standardized the process of bestowing and managing loans and analyzed the SWOTs (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) of their organizations, then established plans to strengthen them that extend into next year. Due to the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, it is unknown when the steering committee will be able to meet again in the foreseeable future. However, the concrete plans and goals laid out by the committee will provide much-needed continuity in these turbulent times, while the committee’s very existence serves as a reassuring reminder to participants (and to us) of the solidarity, love and commitment to change shared by women across the world.