Courtesy of Handmade by Friendship Bridge

Many say that the way to end world poverty is by empowering women and Friendship Bridge, a non-profit social enterprise organization, stands by this belief. With their motto “Creating opportunities that empower Guatemalan women to build a better life” and a vision to “Empower women to choose their own path,” their organization adopts action in agreement with the United Nation’s Eight Millennium Development goals which states that empowering impoverished women is one of the top ways to rectify world poverty.

Handmade by Friendship is one of the four main programs of Friendship Bridge, where indigenous Guatemalan women create, sell, and market their handmade products worldwide.

And now, you too can support Friendship Bridge through mitúShop.

All products that will be available for purchase are from Handmade’s current selection. These Guatemaltecas will create their handmade products based on the wholesale prices and minimum units. For this collection, 10 artisans created 20 different styles, which include jewelry, aprons, bags, clothes, and huipiles.

Other than Handmade, Friendship Bridge has a myriad of other programs that empower Guatemalan women.

Friendship Bridge focuses on Guatemala because it has one of the highest poverty rates in the world. Over 59% of the population lives in poverty and half of its children’s population is malnourished.

In Guatemala, more than 60% of the women are illiterate. Additionally, on a world-scale, women are 70% of the world’s impoverished peoples and are also over 60% of the world’s working hours and yet only take home 10% of the world’s income.

“Some of these women have suffered abuse and racism. Indigenous women are also being trafficked to the Mexican border including their children and many of them suffer partner violence.” Says Maya Colop Morales, Friendship Bridge’s Manager.  

And as Guatemala still recovers the trauma of a 36-year civil war, it is for this reason and the statistics linking poverty, success, and women stated above, that makes Guatemala a country Friendship Bridge desires to uplift.

With 250 on staff in both Guatemala and the United States, Friendship Bridge serves more than 30,000 women.

@handmadefriendshipbridge / Instagram

Friendship Bridge first began in war-torn Vietnam several decades ago as a medical supply organization. In 1998, the organization moved its efforts to Guatemala, also war-torn at the time. They shifted gears from focusing solely on medical supplies but also on what their website calls “microedit plus program” by giving small loans to impoverished Guatemaltecas.

The microedit plus program means Friendship Bridge provides both financial and social capital, pairing loans with social networking and educational development.

The Guatemalan women that Friendship Bridge serves are impoverished, living below the national poverty level, and do not get loans because banks think their poverty makes them too risky. So Friendship Bridge gives small loans for these women to start to gain social capital paired with training and education in order for them to know how to use their money and build themselves up as businesswomen.

The way Friendship Bridge empowers these women is through their programs which include non-formal education, healthcare, Handmade by Friendship bridge, and their agricultural program.

“Education is the heart of Friendship Bridge and so is the development of our clients. By combining education and training along with the loans we provide we can create a pathway out of poverty,” says Marta Julia Ixtuc, Communications and Public Relations for Friendship Bridge.

The education program holds lessons and classes that meet once a month. “We focus on our four pillars, family, women issues, business development, and health,” says Marta. Our education is unique because it’s responsive to our clients’ needs.” Friendship Bridge conducts focus groups and surveys to find out how to better serve these women through a trust bank. The trust bank includes a group of seven to 25 women and that’s when these women meet. This then is social capital where women build this network and learn together at these classes. They even have picture charts for women who are illiterate. The facilitators and loan officers teach these classes as interactive discussions and relate to these women since they are usually from the same community, speaking both Spanish and other indigenous languages. The loan officers also act as mentors in addition to creating the curriculum for these educational classes.

Moreover, they’ve also had classes for non-educational training where they talk about violence. “We have a relationship with these women that they’re able to come to us about these issues, but it’s hard for them to leave an abusive partner,” says Maya.

Health for Life is a mobile clinic model partnering with Mayan Health Alliance. These nurses are extensively trained and speak all the languages of these clients. “Oftentimes, these women over the age of 30 have never seen a doctor before ever in their life. And a lot of the health issues or diseases they have are preventable,” says Carrie Webber, U.S. Marketing Communications Manager. These nurses go out into villages and rural areas doing checkups, monitoring blood pressure, conducting female health checks, testing for disease and more.

The agricultural program, which started five years ago, works to provide specialized training by helping clients understand crop development, farm management, how to healthily grow their produce, and utilize technology to measure risks that crops might be experiencing. This has the capacity to help entire families, not just the farmworker.

“We train these women to participate on a global market. To understand the business model and be able to be self-sustaining,” says Carrie.

Handmade by Friendship Bridge is its artisanal program, a program that includes 100% indigenous women who create their handmade products.

“We also train the women with the skills on different learning experience like traveling to different cities to see tradeshows and be exposed to do different cloths and products. We train them in how to pack their products, how to price their products, how to read technical packets, and tagging,” says Maya.

All of this is to help these indigenous women become independent businesswomen to either sell their products locally, nationally, or internationally.

“Marcela, one of our women who’s a widow, is living her best life and ready to sell her products internationally,” says Maya.

It is extensive training where women are trained in the artisanal industry. They hope to create virtual training in 2022 and serve 500 women virtually. Handmade also manages the online store.

The average woman in Friendship Bridge has six children or more. In the Handmade by Friendship Bridge program, half of these women are married.

“When these women start becoming empowered it affects their family. They’re better mothers and their children – even their husbands – notice the confidence and change in these women,” says Maya.

“We try to connect with the family too because it really benefits the whole family,” Maya adds.

For example, Miriam’s husband is an alcoholic. She has two young children and started with Friendship Bridge in 2019. She had a talent but no way to develop her product. Maya says, “She’s like my A student. I’ll ask her to bring five samples and she’ll bring 20.” Now, Marcela, has grown so much, she has already changed her financial situation and is saving for her kids to go to private school. She’s also now a teacher and working with other companies.

As machismo runs deep through centuries of Latinx and indigenous history, the empowerment these women gain from Friendship Bridge begins to challenge and dismantle that.

“And machismo is challenged with these programs, because when women start getting confident about the fact that they’re building a business or bringing in an income to the household, their husbands see that too and then start to support them. We’ve even had husbands help their wives deliver products or help them make their artisanal designs,” continues Maya.

And these women begin to grow the world economy with their own work.

“Many of the husbands lost their jobs, and these women carry their households. I have seen how husbands have changed,” Says Maya.

When COVID hit, Friendship Bridge had to scramble to amplify its business online. While many businesses saw a decrease in sales, Friendship Bridge saw an increase. Now, they are preparing a five-year plan for a digital model that will expand their network.

Additionally, Friendship Bridge used COVID as an opportunity to educate and empower their women even more. They executed an Emergency Food Relief Program with raised more than $65,000 and coordinated food distribution of more than 3,300 packages to clients and their families living in impoverished and rural villages of Guatemala. This fed more than 15,000 Guatemaltecos facing starvation. The Health for Life program also turned into telehealth services and staffers made thousands of calls to women around Guatemala educating them on COVID and small-business strategies.

“And of course, we sold so many face masks,” Maya says laughing.

Whether it’s masks or something else, you too can buy Handmade by Friendship Bridge products through the partnership with FIERCE.

“I’m a big follower of [FIERCE] and I said ‘I need to reach out to them and start this partnership!” Maya gushes.

“Throughout the year the partnership will include the fact 20 Handmade products including bags, face masks, and jewelry,” says Maya. She added that the artisans are completely ecstatic about this partnership. “There’s a special tag for them on each product showing who the artisan is and how they made the product. These are handwoven products.”

Maya laughed at a beautiful story of how one woman named Santos couldn’t believe she had an order of 96 bags.

Throughout the partnership, FIERCE will also be highlighting the organization and spotlighting different women apart of Friendship Bridge. All funds will go directly to the artisan’s accounts.

Support Friendship Bridge by buying their products on mitu’s online shop as well as donating or starting a Friendship Circle to help Guatemalan women from your own city. To find more ways to support the women of Friendship Bridge, click here. Follow Friendship Bridge on Instagram, Facebook, or their website.