Connecting women leaders, capabilities and community participation: findings from a life stories research in guatemala

Escario, Ana (2019). 'Connecting women leaders, capabilities and community participation: findings from a life stories research in Guatemala' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Several development NGOs are working in Guatemala strengthening women capabilities, promoting their community participation and fostering gender equity. But there is not much research focused on analyzing which capabilities are broadened by participating in community life and how community participation broadens other capabilities. Thus, this research tries to fill the gap exploring the connection between capabilities and community participation among indigenous women leaders in rural areas in Guatemala. Using life story research methodologies we focus on 10 women stories. The personal narrative was teased out using the oral history method. The selection of the sample has been made according to two criteria: indigenous women leaders with more than 10 years of activism and 2 leaders from each municipality investigated. The research was conducted from October 2018 to January 2019 in 4 municipalities in the provinces of Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán (Guatemala).

Of all the qualitative research methods, perhaps life stories is the one that best allows a researcher to access and see how individuals create and reflect the social world that surrounds them. In regard to this, the research allowed us to analyze the conversion factors that affect capabilities expansion or reduction related to women community participation and also which capabilities are broadened by participating in community life.

We can divide the findings into two parts, corresponding to the two parts of the investigation. The first has to do with the expanded capabilities derived from their participation in the community, extracted from life stories, and the second with the results of the validation workshop after them.

Regarding this first part, they highlight capbilities that were not previously found in their empowerment process and that were developed as a result of contact with women's organizations or groups. The ten interviewed woman began their path to leadership as a result of training given by the organizations, which they now value as a central pillar in their empowerment process. Subsequent to this and derived from this role in the community, common capabilities have been found, such as those related to recognition, that is, the ability to be valued in the community and to serve as a guide for other women, as well as those related to the defense of their rights, that is, the ability to know and defend their own rights and those of others, as well as to guarantee their own physical safety and that of their children, since of the eight who are or have been married , five of them suffered violence from their husbands/ex-husbands in the past. Other capabilities that they have developed and that they value are those related to participation, such as the ability to participate politically and the capability to produce change (act and defend the rights of their communities).

The first findings show us that many of these capabilities are promoted by organizations, mainly through the dissemination of their rights (through education), which leads them become aware of their role in the community and to know their sociopolitical context and how to interact with it, this being the basis on which the rest of the capabilities are built. However, a dissonance has been found between their most valued capabilities, according to themselves, and those in which the organizations intervene. During the research, they expressed the poor attendance of the organizations in health issues, element they value the most, specifically in mental and emotional health issues. Their role as leaders derives in criticism in their community and threats to their physical integrity due to their activities of defense of the territory, which causes emotional instability and abandonment in many cases. The lack of support to reconcile family life and the role as a leader is also a priority for them, since many times, in their words, behind a leader there are unattended children. The reconciliation with their economic needs is another aspect, since they have to abandon them in order to exercise their role in the community, a role that all of them carry out ad honorem. These three capabilities: the ability to have health, the ability to sustain themselves financially and the ability to provide well-being to their children are the most valued by them but nevertheless none of the 3 receive support from the organizations and in all of them they would like receive it. In addition, all of them have a key role in the continuity of their role as leaders and as defenders of rights and often cause the abandonment of it.

There are other impediments to these and other women exercising their role as leaders, and they have their origin in socio-cultural factors. The main factor is the dominant patriarchal society in communities. Seven of the ten women interviewed were widows, separated or never married, while of the other three, one disobeyed the impositions of her husband, from whom she received violence, and in the other two cases the leadership had to wait until that their children became independent. In nine of the ten cases, women expressed the difficulty of exercising their role as a leader in the public opinion of the community, which is critical of women working outside the home. Consequently we can deduce the key role of man, and of society in general, in the impediment of the development of their abilities, and the emancipating role of the detachment of the male figure, despite the existence of social factors that make the most arduous path.

In conclusion, despite the valuable work of organizations, it seems that this is a superficial approach to woman leaders needs, or at least falls short in more advanced stages of leadership, in which women have already developed a trajectory. Capabilities such as the ability to enjoy mental health, the ability to sustain themselves financially or the ability to reconcile family life, aspects that they value most, are left unattended and relegated to the background, assuming a burden that sometimes becomes excessive for the correct performance of their functions as leaders and defenders of rights.

scroll to top