It’s a hot, humid morning, and Maria Elena Algarañaz de Masabi is working at a booth displaying brightly coloured handicrafts for sale. She carefully lays out cloth purses and drawstring bags and hangs up knit children’s clothes.
Masabi is president of Mujeres sin Limites (Women Without Limits), an artisan collective in Montero, a city in the Santa Cruz department of Bolivia. The 12 members work together to make and sell handicrafts to supplement their household incomes.
All 12 women learned these skills at El Comedor de Niños, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner. El Comedor provides after-school care for children but also offers workshops in everything from nutrition, self-esteem and basic healthcare to cooking, hairdressing and sewing.
Between 2003 and 2006, the women took part in workshops at El Comedor, learning to knit, sew, and weave aguayo, a traditional Bolivian fabric with colourful patterns. Members of the collective began making products, including guitar cases, wallets, purses and clothing. As they improved, they analyzed the quality of their products and eventually decided to start a business together.
None of the members attended university, and Masabi didn’t even finish primary school, but all feel they’ve learned a great deal from the workshops.
“We don’t have education but we’ve graduated from El Comedor,” Masabi says. “El Comedor has opened the door for us, and because of that we’ve gone very far. It’s so beautiful.”
In addition to learning how to make the handicrafts, the women were taught basic business management skills through El Comedor, including the importance of saving. Each month, members put aside 10 percent of their earnings to buy more supplies and grow the business. Together, they’ve been able to buy three sewing machines.
The savings are also used to pay for transportation and food when one member represents the group at fairs around the country. They split the profits equally, and all materials and machines are collectively owned and shared.
“With these rules we’ve been able to keep the group going,” Masabi says.
The group also helped Masabi overcome a personal obstacle. Her husband is a large, brash man who verbally abused her when he found out she was attending classes at El Comedor. She stood up for herself and went against the cultural norm because her family needed the extra income.
“I decided I needed to do this when I saw my children were suffering from malnutrition and being underweight,” she says. “We didn’t have enough money to buy nutritious food and we didn’t have enough food.”
She and her husband managed to work through their differences, and today he is supportive of her business and her part-time work at El Comedor, where she works as a social worker. She credits El Comedor and the other members of artisan collective for their support.
“It was a challenge, but not impossible,” she says. “We do it all together and we’ve succeeded. That’s why our group is called Women Without Limits. We don’t have limits.”
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