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Oxlajuj B'atz' Maya Women's Center: Empowering Women, Inspiring Change
Three Generations of Weavers - Lajuj Ix & Las Estrellas cooperatives, Sololá, Guatemala (Photo by Oxlajuj B'atz')
Thirteen Threads (Oxlajuj B'atz'/Trece Hilos)
TIES new member Oxlajuj B'atz' (OB) - meaning "Thirteen Threads" - in Guatemala has created a network of women's cooperatives with an emphasis on inspiring self-sufficiency among rural Mayan women. OB focuses its efforts on education and skills training in four areas: health and well-being, artisan and product development, democracy and team building, and small business.
The needs of each village are assessed via surveys of the village's women, and then workshops are organized according to what the needs of the women in that village are determined to be.
- Health and well-being workshops include education on native medicinal plants and their uses, and possible cultivation for future sale; women’s health, which includes cervical cancer screenings, family planning and preventive medicine; and also teaches women to recognize that they have rights and access to necessary resources.
- Artisan and product development workshops build on the rich weaving tradition already well-developed in the region, also teaching new skills such as rug-hooking and pine needle basket making.
- Democracy and team building workshops include OB's efforts in education on the meaning of democracy and how it can be used in the women's own lives as well as a means to build an association of women to strengthen decision-making and political participation among the group.
- Small business workshops train women on the various aspects of running their own businesses as well as providing micro loans when needed.
OB also facilitates tours of rural Guatemala with opportunities for visitors to experience cultural immersion and receive education on OB's projects. One important reason for OB to establish these tours as a part of its programs is to connect the women in these cooperatives with potential buyers, and ultimately markets for their products. Another reason is to promote sustainable development and preserve indigenous cultures in the region in a way that would not sacrifice the natural or cultural uniqueness of the Maya people. On the other hand, the benefit of these tours for visitors lies in the opportunity to experience the natural beauty of Guatemala, to be immersed into Mayan culture, and to spend quality time with the hard-working, hospitable women of the Oxlajuj B'atz' cooperatives.
Interview: Oxlajuj B’atz’ and Ecotourism
Why is the organization named "Thirteen Threads"?
The name Oxlajuj B'atz' means "Thirteen Threads" in the Maya Kaqchikel language. The name was chosen by the Maya women artisan members of the organization because 13 is considered a sacred number in their culture and traditions. For instance, the Maya believe that there are 13 points of power in the body and there are 13 months in a year. Also, since weaving is such an integral part of their life, they think of their connections in life as being joined by threads.
What was the inspiration for establishing OB? Were there any particular problems that community members had or any issues you encountered that led to the idea of creating an organization like this?
Two fair trade organizations, Mayan Hands and Maya Traditions Foundation, both operating out of Guatemala, are marketing organizations for Maya women's artisan products in the US whose purpose is to alleviate poverty. As they were working with the indigenous women, they realized that the women could benefit greatly from educational and capacity building programs. In 2004, jointly, the founders of the organizations formed Oxlajuj B’atz’ (OB) to offer non-formal education to help empower women weavers.
In its conception, a thorough evaluation process was conducted to assess the most pressing needs of the participating women. From this, it was determined that OB would focus on the areas of health, artisan and product development, democracy and leadership skills, and small business. Since then, OB has become an organization in its own right and initiated a Maya Women's Center in December of 2010, serving cooperatives of Maya women artisans throughout Guatemala.
How was the decision to incorporate tourism into OB's programs made? Did the members of women's cooperatives embrace the idea of accepting tourists?
When Oxlajuj B’atz’ decided to become a social enterprise to reduce their need for outside funding, the idea of building connections between the women and their communities and with visitors from developed countries made sense. Every community that OB works with was approached for their approval and to discuss what their responsibilities would be. Many of these communities are in remote areas that are not accustomed to receiving any outside visitors, which makes it a unique and rewarding experience for the women to share their community and for visitors to see an authentic slice of Guatemala.
From the tours that have taken place to date, our women members have made long-term connections with new friends from the US. And the new friends in the US have become wonderful advocates for the work that the women here are doing. Building these connections and enhancing the education for both groups (tourists and locals) has had a profound effect on all of their lives.
Has there been any challenge with the community tour program that the Maya women or the participating tourists have experienced?
For some of the Maya women, it is difficult for them to open up and share their stories with the visitors. Being historically marginalized, the women struggle to find their voice and lack the confidence to speak openly about their lives. However, with more opportunities to meet and engage with others, the women are learning to overcome this. It is also a huge confidence booster for the women to receive such positive feedback from the visitors and to have groups of people who are very interested in learning from them about their artisan craft and their stories.
Challenges for the tourists involve any of the common challenges that exist in visiting an underdeveloped country such as infrastructure problems, lack of daily efficiencies and services, gastrointestinal health issues, etc.
What kind of feedback have you received from the visitors who have participated in the community tours? What aspects of the tours do they enjoy most?
We have received very positive feedback from all of our visitors. The aspect that they seem to enjoy the most is making personal connections with the women in our cooperatives and learning their artisan skill, which is what makes OB's tours unique in comparison from other tours offered in the area.
Here are just a few examples of testimonials from past visitors:
- "The tour was set up to include time with indigenous women from rural villages who are part of a cooperative women's empowerment program. Because of the thoughtful design of the tour and the cultural competence of the leaders, we were able to spend significant, meaningful time with these women both as they worked at the cooperative (13 Threads) and by visiting their home villages. We were able to enter into their lives and share a common ground as women and artists."
- "Their beautiful ear-to-ear smiles are genuine even though their stories are often times hard to hear. Each person you meet touches your heart and awakens your soul to new thoughts and ideas. Their artistry is dynamic; alive with great energy and emotion and not to be missed. Once you see how they create their textiles, you will never be able to look at woven, hooked, beaded items in quite the same manner or possibly even as casually as you may have in the past. The tour was extraordinary – we saw and did so very much in a very short time. I will never forget this trip!"
What's next for Oxlajuj B'atz'? What are some of the long and short term goals for the project's growth and development? Any new initiatives planned, or new opportunities to be introduced?
Recently, OB has made major strides in its own growth by becoming a legal Association based in Guatemala that is in process of being owned and operated by the women members. We are currently developing our General Assembly so that each community's cooperative will send representative leaders that meet each year to discuss the focus and direction of the organization.
We are also at a point where we will be graduating cooperatives that have been with us since our creation in order to have the capacity to take on new cooperatives. The graduates will act as mentors to our new groups. In addition, we are putting more time and energy into our Young Mayan Women's Internship program in an effort to work with young women that have not yet made lifetime choices and to give them more experience to shape their future direction.