Author: Peter Zinn
Among the most impoverished countries in Central America – where basic human rights and fair governance rarely extend beyond the wealthy class – Honduras ranks as one of the region’s most destitute. An estimated eighty percent of the population, nearly six million people, lives below the poverty line. As staggering as that figure is, more than fifty percent of Hondurans reside in rural areas, where they’re unlikely to be included in any of the country’s already troublesome statistics.
The perpetually overlooked class of rural, indigenous women stands particularly at risk to the effects of poverty. Exposures to disease and chemicals, as well as low life expectancies, are simply facts of life in many of the country’s villages. In addition to physical dangers, the ways in which women are viewed in society continue to marginalize their opportunities for improvement. Even their significant work in agriculture, though a lifeline within small communities, is considered more a social duty than a vocation fit to play an economic role.
Through the work of Sustainable Harvest International, women in Honduras have been given access not only to aid, but more crucially, to empowerment. SHI’s community loan funds and micro-credit programs currently manage over $45,000 within a group of rural banks. Micro-Credit Specialist, Lili Andrade, leads these initiatives. “We are not just giving a loan,” explains Lili. “We are providing families with hope for a better life.”
As the women of rural Honduras are typically responsible for child care within the family, as well as the provision of food, Lili’s work exemplifies the commitments of SHI towards relieving the harms of gender imbalance. Beginning with 12 rural banks in 2001, SHI has granted more than 1,500 loans to over 1,000 families. These community loan funds carry interest rates agreed upon by lenders and borrowers, structuring payments on a case by case basis. As money is borrowed by community members and then repaid to a shared fund, interest income is retained within a network of neighbors. Not only does this system help strengthen the banks, but because of the personal nature of accountability, default rates are kept exceptionally low, with nearly 100% repayment from participants.
On average, SHI will provide start-up capital of $700 for a group of 10 rural bank members to put toward projects such as starting general stores or purchasing land – both of which help create food sovereignty. The micro-credit loans are smaller, commonly about $100 each, and are made to individuals seeking to buy specific goods, such as livestock, feed, or other farming supplies. These loans are repaid each year, at which time the money is then put towards a subsequent round of lending.
As much as Lili’s work benefits Honduran families (and in turn the women who often lead those families), her example sets a precedent of financial independence being available to anyone, regardless of gender. The first female to work on the field staff of SHI-Honduras, Lili received training through local programs and Trickle-Up (an organization that has partnered with SHI for micro-finance and small business development programs). Over the years she has established and led successful micro-finance programs for participants. By teaching basic bookkeeping and management skills, Lili enables participants to start their own rural banks and small businesses. Not only does her instruction benefit participants, but for many of the families that SHI serves, the fact that Lily is a Honduran woman who has achieved so much herself, is an added inspiration. The projects she helps initiate – small stores, sewing cooperatives, animal husbandry, and bakeries – are often run by rural women.
“My work, to reach the poorest families and to give these families access to loans, is full of challenges,” Lili explains. “The people who need our support have very few resources and sometimes in a group there will be only one person who has finished elementary school. Small farmers here do not have access to conventional loans, but with just a little seed money and training they can really improve their lives.” As evidence of the progress Lili has made, SHI’s rural banking program now extends to 28 communities throughout Honduras.
IN HER OWN WORDS
Now that I know how to cultivate organically, I am thinking about increasing the quantity and variety of vegetables so that our garden is always producing something, for our daily diet and to sell at market. SHI has taught us that the best way to rise out of poverty is to have a self-sustaining farm. - Elvia Ayala, 59 years
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