Power through Handicrafts: Supporting Rural Women in Bolivia

This blog is the fifth post in Human Nature’s “Gender + Conservation” blog series.

boat of tourists in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Ecotourism in the Rurrenabaque region of Bolivia. Women involved in the jipijapa project in New Horizons sell their handicrafts to tourists passing through Rurrenabaque, a popular tourist town. (© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans)

The three women stand confidently behind their wares and tell the story of New Horizons, an indigenous community in the tropical northwest area of Bolivia.

Recognizing that the community’s meager agricultural production was not providing sufficient income, the women’s club of New Horizons began weaving jipijapa palm fronds into hats, baskets and other items. Thanks to the nearby tourist town of Rurrenabaque, the women were able to successfully market their crafts.

Now, nearly 15 years later, they are reporting some of the changes these activities have had on their lives: “It is we women who control [our income], we now have enough money for the kids for school, clothes, food … we complement our husbands.”

Bolivian women showcase jipijapa hats

Women from the New Horizons women’s group showcase their jipijapa crafts. (© Conservation International/photo by Candido Pastor)

CI Bolivia has been an active supporter of the women’s group since 2002, providing a craft center and hiring expert trainers to improve quality. I have been lucky to work closely with this inspiring group of 22 women, and have witnessed firsthand how hard they have worked to succeed.

Initially the women were responsible for the whole process: planting and harvesting the palms, weaving and marketing the jipijapa products. Over time, their husbands became more involved and now support their wives in harvesting and other activities. One woman explains, “Over the years, men have come to accept [this work]; seeing our incomes are good, [they] now help us gather the material.”

These craft activities have also helped the women to be more active and confident in other spheres, such as community decision-making. “Before, the women went to meetings and just listened, [they] did not decide anything,” one of the women explains. “But now, the mayor is a woman, and we are training, and it’s easier now.”

The success of this group of women is mirrored in Bolivia’s report on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals last year, which found that the empowerment of women and gender equality in education, employment and political participation has improved considerably.

While this is certainly encouraging, we at CI Bolivia recognize that promoting gender equality is an ongoing (and long-term) process, and that the challenges remain enormous. Despite the fact that women play a fundamental role in community conservation and development, they are still too often left out of the decision-making process.

With this in mind, CI Bolivia has focused significant effort over recent months to better understand how men and women are currently involved in our projects and programs, and to identify ways to improve women’s participation.

With strong support from both within CI and from partner organizations and local consultants, we have done the following:

  1. Organized a workshop with other environmental and development organizations working in Bolivia to share lessons learned and best practices for integrating gender into projects. As a result, we now have a number of Bolivia-specific tools and reports — and a network of colleagues working on these issues — to assist our work.
  2. Trained staff, partner organizations and associated consultants on best practices for implementing gender-integrated projects and programs. During the training, we highlighted the progress we’ve already made toward empowering women (such as the jipijapa project).
  3. Integrated gender considerations into our planning and implementation processes. For example, we have included new gender-relevant indicators as a key part of our annual and 5-year plan, as well as created guidelines for integrating gender considerations into contracts and as a part of staff´s responsibilities.
participants in gender workshop, Bolivia

Participants in the gender workshop in La Paz, Bolivia. (© Conservation International/photo by Candido Pastor)

While we are proud of the steps we have already taken, we realize that we are only at the beginning of this process. We are continuing to help staff and partners expand their skills, ensure that gender-related activities are budgeted for in new proposals and put a monitoring system in place to make certain that men and women are successfully participating in, and benefiting from, CI’s projects and programs in Bolivia.

Cándido Pastor is the environmental policy coordinator for CI Bolivia. Read other blogs in Human Nature’s “Gender + Conservation” blog series. 

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