Voices from the Field Series: El Salvador

03.04.2021 | Connie Gonzalez

CIPE staff members serve in the field year-round, helping launch and maintain programs to promote democracy and free enterprise. As the world marks International Women’s Day on March 8, our Center for Women’s Economic Empowerment (CWEE) asked several staff members to discuss the impact of their work in empowering and promoting women’s initiatives around the globe.

Why do you believe empowering women is important? 

I have seen how a strong woman leader can drive lasting change in a family, a community, a business and a society. When women have the opportunity to learn and grow and take full advantage of their potential to become active and productive members of society, everyone benefits. I believe that empowering women is important because I have seen the positive results of having more women involved in important conversations and decisions as they are being made. I truly believe in having women’s voices and actions play an active role in positive change. When women are empowered, they are more likely to participate in those processes to guarantee rights and access to others.

Data and studies show us that women still face incredible barriers that are often exacerbated by cultural and societal norms and gender stereotypes. This past year, the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic have wreaked havoc on developmental and social gains and have forced women to retreat from the business world, either because they are forced to or because they need to focus on household duties. Only by empowering women and providing them support and resources will we ensure that economies and countries make gains in equity, which will lead to greater developmental successes.

I believe deeply in the power of education and what it allows a woman to do for herself and her community. Girls need to feel empowered in classrooms as they grow up. Grown women need opportunities to continue their education and learn about new trends and technologies and how those can impact their lives and business. With more education women can make better choices for themselves and their families and will be better able to maneuver in a world built and still mostly run by men.

What are some of the top priorities for women in business in your country? 

Women in El Salvador, as elsewhere, face multiple challenges. I would say the top priorities in the country include security, education and having an enabling environment that allows women entrepreneurs to be more successful. El Salvador has a high percentage of female-led households and a deep spirit of women entrepreneurship, which creates a unique atmosphere to promote women-owned businesses. It also means that traditional systems and male-dominated structures lack the engendered approach that would truly maximize the potential that is out there for economic and social growth led by women in the country. In addition, the security situation, with high levels of extortion, femicides and gender-based violence, particularly on public transportation, are a real obstacle to many women. Security issues must be addressed in a more comprehensive way, so that women can be more successful in starting-up and operating businesses.

Tell us a story of hope or change that you have seen in your work empowering women in your country. 

I have had the opportunity to work with women artisans in El Salvador, and I have seen how technical training and expanded access to markets has grown their businesses and led to improved revenues. I have seen how the financial success of these efforts has led to social successes as money is channeled back into the business, providing jobs for additional women, or providing income that is used to send children to school or make improvements in living conditions. One women potter told me how she began designing her own new products after working with a local designer who helped her take traditional black pottery methods and apply them to completely new design shapes and sizes for export to the U.S. market. Not only did she benefit from an opportunity to try something new and to connect her business to an export market, but she also continued to profit from that knowledge and experience as she constantly innovated to create products that no one else in the community sold. In fact, she became the model that others emulated; soon after she would design a new product, neighbors would start to copy it, pushing her into a process of constant renovation and innovation, which is a key component to having a successful entrepreneurial venture.

Who is a woman leader who inspires you and why? 

There are so many important, inspirational women out there! I find great inspiration in snapshots of women who I have seen start up and grow their businesses here in El Salvador, especially recently, and those who have survived the pandemic through innovation and pivoting strategies. I know a young chef who started a restaurant with a friend in a local commercial center. She later had an opportunity to partner with several investors to take the concept to scale and became quite successful. Now she partners with other up-and-coming chefs and has been exploring the country to learn more about using local products for dishes. That is quite inspirational!

When thinking more about celebrities, one person who I greatly admire is Michelle Obama. I appreciate how she honors and recognizes other women. I appreciate how she has dedicated her time to supporting causes for children, our next generation of leaders. I appreciate how she is a woman of color and can be an inspiration to others. I appreciate how she is intellectually curious and committed to core values of integrity and respect. I feel she is a woman who consciously lifts other women up, which is central to making positive change in society, and has used her position to support others and give voice to others.

Why is it important to celebrate International Women’s Day? 

It is important to celebrate International Women’s Day as a time for reflection about how far we have come and how much progress has been made, while paying tribute to all the women around the world who have made that progress possible in their countries and globally. The Day also invites us to recognize the challenges that we continue to face as women and how we can take steps to continue to make progress on those challenges. I believe it is important to celebrate successes, and so many women have had such success in making society more equitable and respectful. On International Women’s Day we have a chance to celebrate their success and build upon it for future generations who still need us to continue to make headway and change century old structures to ensure better access and participation by women.