In gang-infested El Salvador it is not uncommon for a man to feel his masculinity threatened when his wife or partner works outside the home. Despite the stigma of women in a male-dominated culture, there is a group of 11 women who have taken ownership of their lives in the picturesque community of Suchitoto.
They were gifted a sewing machine by a non-governmental organization and turned their knowledge into Pajaro Flor, a sewing, embroidery and indigo-dying workshop.
“But they had no idea what a business was,” says Anne Marie Gardner, executive director of the Maryland-based Salvadoran Enterprises for Women. Gardner was forever changed by the resilience of Salvadoran woman amid countless obstacles.
“They could sew for family, for friends, but a business is a whole different thing,” she explains.
Salvadoran Enterprises for Women, in partnership with San Salvador-based Center for Exchange and Solidarity, helped each entrepreneur organize and learn to run a business.
A 2009 government contract pledged a school uniform for each elementary school child. In turn, the Ministry of Education pledged 25 percent of those contracts would go into micro enterprises, including Pajaro Flor, which means “flower bird” in Spanish.
“It’s very positive to have an area that centers around women and to organize with Salvadoran Enterprises for Women it gives a tool for that,” Gardner says.
Fiderbinda Orellana is one of the 11 women.
She, along with her family, fled her home in La Libertad after armed forces took control of the land during the bloody civil war of the 1980s. Orellana’s family left behind all their belongings, including their crops.
“We only had the clothes on our backs,” Orellana says. “They made their way to a rural village where the only alimentation was milk from cows.
After about three months, they once again were forced to flee when the armed forces found them.
“They would find out where escapees went and they would find you,” Orellana recalls. They escaped in the nick of time after nuns warned them the armed forces were coming after them. A few days later the nuns were killed.
The game of cat and mouse continued into other rural communities until they made their way to a refugee camp. It became their safe harbor for four months but not without casualty. Orellana’s father was kidnapped, tortured and murdered.
With nowhere else to go, the family went to a conflict zone where guerilla rebels offered them protection. But the armed forces found the family. According to Orellana, they fled for four years.
“We endured hunger, thirst, sometimes as many as 15 days without food,” Orellana shares. “It was rare there was enough water to drink. You felt like you were suffocating from thirst.”
Her brother who had escaped to Cuba returned to take the family to a refugee camp near the capital city of San Salvador. The family stayed there for three years before transferring to another refugee camp and eventually ended up in Suchitoto
The town has buildings influenced by Spanish architecture. The sun shines brightly in the downtown area. Lively colors can be found throughout the community.
Once Orellano found Suchitoto she never looked back. Some of the women entrepreneurs at Pajaro Flor are bread winners. Their children watch them use their talent and creativity to bring a steady income home.
Their children have hope and it is thanks to them. There are similar businesses the organizations work with including other indigo-dying workshops, a typical food cafeteria, farms, bakeries, artisans, grocers and seamstresses.
“I think women have their own way of getting things done,” says CIS executive director Leslie Schuld. “They have perseverance and persistence which is obviously important in shaping policies.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported writer Christine Bolaños’ reporting from El Salvador.
IWMF fellow Christine Bolaños is a freelance journalist covering government, education, human interest and business news from Austin, Texas. She has reported on numerous topics, including breaking stories on local bullying cases that have resulted in changes to school policy, to profiles on women of impact at NASA, Google, the FBI and more. Follow Christine @bolanosnews08