02 October 2006

Day 3 Field Based Training

The third place we visited during our field-based training was a large-scale cooperative that had evolved in the past 20 years into providing an association for farmers, a group purchasing agency, a credit agency, a packing & processing plant, an exporter, a scholarship foundation, and a medical clinic. In my mind, it served as an excellent place to serve as close to an ideal for us. It had a cooperative of some 800 farmer families.
I could write a lot of uninteresting details of how the business ran, as I spent time working in the finance office, the packing plant, quality control, and four other jobs, I'd rather write a quick bit on one little office: Servicios de Sociales. This actually wasn't an office of social services at all. It was actually a 15x15 room that served as an office for loans, sales contracts, payments, and seed & fertilizer distribution and ran by two women for one subgroup of farmers. What seemed so strange to me was that there were about 13 other rooms that served the same purpose in the entire building: vookkeepers, CPAs, and a warehouse of seed & fertilizer for the other farmers. Why don't these farmers go to the bigger offices for the same services instead of waiting in this line for hours?
The answer was simple: all of these members of the association were women. I thought about this through the entire day and thought about how unfair it was that all their work was relegated to this little room that was printing contracts on a secretary's printer as a favor. If this cooperative was advanced enough to provide scholarships and medical clinics, why couldn't it at least streamline the process so that women could wait in line with the men? What seemed stranger was that, in the finance office, there were women who were waiting in line to turn in paperwork for their husbands. Upon talking with a few people, I learned that the system was actually kept to better maintain equality.
It turns out that there was no rule saying that women couldn't go to the main office, nor were their records kept separate, nor were they paid prices any different or were any of the services offered different. However, since most people who graduate high school in this area were men, there are few bookkeepers who were women. The office and the warehouse in general were vastly dominated by male employees. However, experience showed that male bookkeepers and weighers were less helpful when women needed help with something or didn't understand why their bills didn't add up to them. It sounded like sometimes men genuinely were unhelpful, sometimes it just came down to the fact that women & men here conduct business differently. Whatever the case, women members sought to work with women because they trusted them more, and male staff members were happy to not have to deal with them.
This doesn't mean that the system qualifies as separate but equal: As I mentioned, the women members have longer lines and their offices appears to have a smaller budget. And, hopefully, women will work in offices and warehouses as much and have an equal opportunity to get a higher education someday. For now, however, they seem to found a culturally appropriate solution, no matter how politically incorrect it appears to a North American.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found this interesting, Andrew. Our "neice" we sponsor in Guate City is now 16, so will probably be thinking marriage not too far down the road.(A couple more years would be fine with us!). Anyway, now I can imagine what her wedding will be like someday.
Sue

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