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What does success look like? For this single mother in Guatemala, it’s all about perseverance

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A participant in the Women in Small Enterprise program, known as WISE, stands in her bakery. Photo by Ilene Perlman/Oxfam

Margaret Fleming is a program specialist in Oxfam’s Private Sector Department. She works on the Women in Small Enterprise program, impact investing, and shareholder advocacy.

The taxi arrived that evening to take us to Zona 1, the cultural heart of the Guatemala City and a place where we, as foreigners, had been advised against going at night. A colleague had offered to bring two of us to visit his former host family’s home to show us a bit more of life in the city than we had seen in the short walk from the hotel to the office conference room and back each day.

As the three of us climbed into the taxi, I thought about how I’d spent the past two years becoming increasingly involved with Oxfam’s Women in Small Enterprise (WISE) program, an initiative designed to support the economic empowerment of women entrepreneurs in Guatemala, and had yet to understand what that really meant on the ground. We were visiting as part of our team’s annual check-in during which we assess our past progress and challenges, and plan for the coming year. Until my visit, the only women I’d met from Guatemala were my colleagues in the program.

We arrived at a home, set behind a large parking lot, that seemed to have grown haphazardly into every available space. My colleague explained that our host’s husband had left the country years ago, leaving her to pay off his debts and raise their two children. In order to cover his debts, she had opened her home to boarders and let teachers at a nearby school park in her driveway for a small fee. By the time my colleague lived there, she had discharged the debts and her family, including two grown children, was living in relative comfort. My colleague explained that she’d become a mother to him during his year under her roof as he struggled being a foreigner in a new land, completed his PhD research, and, ultimately, embraced life in the city.

She came out to greet us as we got out of the taxi, pulling my colleague into an embrace that spoke volumes of both the love shared between them and the time they had spent together. She gave us a hug that clearly said ”any friends of his are welcome here,” and ushered us into her home.

Twisting passages opened into a series of small rooms, each filled with potted plants and figurines of Catholic saints. “No hablo español. Lo siento,” I stuttered, cursing, for the hundredth time that trip, my decision to study French in school. Our other colleague explained that she didn’t speak Spanish either. Our host gave us a wink and gestured to the table. Between the two of us, with help from our more linguistically talented colleague, we were able to follow along and participate, slowly grasping the depth of their friendship and learning about her life as a single mother in Guatemala City.

Her two children came out to join us. She explained that her daughter was deaf but worked at a shop down the street and was very independent. Each year her daughter used some of her savings to visit a new city in the United States. Mother and daughter shuttled from the kitchen to the table, laying down plates of food: homemade tortillas, vegetables, fresh guacamole, ravioli, sauces, fruit, and our host’s favorite, apple pie. My colleague and his ‘Guatemalan mom’, as he affectionately called her, continued to catch up. After a lively dinner, a tour of my colleague’s old cinder-block room on the roof and a walk through the maze of newly added boarding rooms, we shared many goodbye hugs and departed back to our hotel.

A participant in Oxfam’s Women in Small Enterprise program, or WISE, demonstrates how she handles some of the materials for her woven and embroidered textiles. Photo by Ilene Perlman/Oxfam

During our team check-in, we had spent our days speaking with everyone connected to our program. Getting to see all the pieces we’d worked so hard to put together in person was incredibly encouraging yet, to me, it had all still felt abstract–until that night. Watching my colleague fall back into a familiar rhythm with a close friend, it became so clear that women like this are why the WISE program exists.

I think back on that night as a bit of a dream, so different than the rest of our trip but somehow so fitting. While our host was not part of our women’s empowerment program, I couldn’t help but think that she exemplified exactly why we at Oxfam work to ensure women have an even playing field. Across the world women are held back and held down by cultural standards that discriminate against them, laws that limit their mobility, unequal compensation, violence, lack of representation. The list goes on. However, we keep seeing women who, despite having the chips stacked against them, manage to rise above those challenges. They are women—just like our host—who have persevered and succeeded even when society seems to think they can’t.

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