By Meg Gray, KF10 Costa Rica
There is one question that I have really come to hate during my time in Central America: “Do you have a boyfriend?” My hackles immediately rise, not because I’m unhappy with my answer, but because of how too many men react to my answer here.
“Yes, I have a boyfriend,” I say with enthusiasm.
“Is he Tico?” he asks.
“No. He’s in California.”
“Do you want another boyfriend then?” he asks.
I’m honestly not sure why they ask if I have a boyfriend if they intend to completely disregard my answer and hit on me anyway. So yes folks, this is my example of how machismo is alive and well in Central America. Of course, I’m generalizing and not all Costa Rican men respond like that, but it is definitely an unfortunate pattern.
But enough of my complaining, there is good news too! The exciting thing is that there are organizations like Fundación Mujer, one of Kiva’s Field Partners in San José, Costa Rica that are actively combating machismo every day. Their mission is to be the leading provider of both financial and non-financial services to female entrepreneurs in Costa Rica and they are working hard to achieve that goal. First, they provide loans almost exclusively to women. Their loan portfolio right now is 99% women.* They provide individual loans to women with some business experience and someone with salaried job to guarantee the loan. And they provide group loans to women who are just starting businesses. The group loans are an especially powerful tool for empowering women, because the loan is guaranteed by the rest of the group and they don’t need someone with a salaried job (usually a man) to sign for them.
In addition to loans, Fundación Mujer provides a wide-variety of trainings for their clients. Before disbursing a group loan, the group must first receive basic small business management and accounting training. This pre-disbursal training also has a portion that focuses broadly on leadership and on women as leaders in particular. In addition to training regarding business, marketing, accounting etc, they have a wide-variety of trainings focused on empowering women and goal setting.
After so many unwanted whistles on the streets of San José, it was extremely encouraging to watch one of Fundación Mujer’s seasoned loan officers lead a training on gender roles. “What do you like about being a woman?” she asks the group. “What don’t you like?” “Think about the things you don’t like. Of the things on that list, what can you change?” Inevitably, the answers were related to machismo. “I can stop letting my son order me around.” “I can start expecting my husband to help around the house sometimes.” Listening to the women was inspiring. You could see the light bulbs going off in their heads. And the loan officer had all sorts of simple, constructive ways for them to channel their enthusiasm and get started. For example, instead of always having your daughter serve everyone dinner, have your son and your daughter take turns. Or make a habit of only preparing food for meals, if your husband wants a snack between meals show him how to make it the first time and then let him do it. The women left the training visibly excited as they chatted enthusiastically about what they might try.
For me it was encouraging to see how a simple training had such an impact. Though I know machismo is not going to change overnight, even in the communities that receive trainings like this one, I am reassured that this additional service provided by a Kiva Field Partner is helping to plant the seeds that will one day eliminate machismo altogether.
*Recently the Board of Directors decided that it was reverse discrimination to exclude men from receiving loans completely. The new policy is to allow men to apply for loans, but to only give them a loan if there is no woman waiting for one. The microfinance sector is relatively undeveloped in Costa Rica, so the demand for loans is high and as far as I can tell there are always women waiting.
Meg Gray is currently a Kiva Fellow with Fundación Mujer in San José, Costa Rica. Though she is leaving Costa Rica in just one short week, she looks forward to the day when she can come back and hopefully, walk down the street without all the unwanted whistles.
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