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Microfinance Creates Healthy Foundations for Women

17 October 2012 No Comment

Meghan Johnson

Meghan Johnson
Cartagena, Colombia

“The goal is to create opportunity and agency for the residents of one of the poorest cities in Colombia, and they’ve made enormous differences for thousands of families – 7,000 so far, in fact.”

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“What does it mean to you to have a floor?”

I stared blankly.  Floor?  Well, you can’t have a house without a floor.  Linoleum?  Hardwood?  Tile?  What the heck does she mean, what does it mean?

Isabela continued in Spanish.  ”I asked the women, what does it mean to you to now have a floor in your home?  Tell me in one word.  And they told me:  Seguridad.  Stabilidad.  Felicidad.”

Security.  Stability.  Happiness.

The last descriptor came from a nine year-old girl after Actuar Por Bolivar gave her family a floor on which she could finally sit and play with her friends.  Before that gift, their house stood on a foundation of compressed dirt.  And every time it rained, a nearby canal (which served as an unofficial garbage dump, to make matters worse) overflowed and flooded their town.  The floorless homes had no foundations to properly seal out the water, and the dirt turned to mud which turned to knee-deep rivers of filthy water.

“Here, the rain comes at night, when everyone is sleeping.  Can you imagine?”

Isabela is a psychologist who works with the people that Actuar Por Bolivar serves.  When I met her for the first time, I didn’t understand why a microfinance organization would need a psychologist on their staff.  I was sipping cafe tinto with a full packet of sugar and enjoying the air conditioning in the office of the director, Rosario.  She pulled out two thick photos albums from a bookshelf in her office and dropped them on her desk in front of me.  I flipped through page after page of images of families in makeshift shelters, shirtless and dusty children, and faces devoid of expression.  Rosario and Isabela explained that the people in the photos were desplazados– the displaced, people who lost loved ones and homes during the violence and instability of the 1990s in Colombia.  Many of them are still rebuilding their lives and making peace with the past.

A few weeks later, I joined these women and other volunteers at the organization on a visit to one of the poor barrios where they provide microfinance and educational services.  We visited owners of small businesses and listened to their stories.  One young woman sold candies, cigarettes, snacks, and boli (ice pops) from her front porch.  I bought a lollipop.  Several other women maintained small organic gardens in their backyards and sold their produce to a local hotel.  Yes, organic.  Pesticide-free.  It’s not just at Whole Foods, people.

The owner of this garden told us with a smile: “The name of the garden is la felicidad mia“– my own happiness. Photo: Meghan Johnson

Microfinance is especially helpful to people who live in poor rural areas like these, where jobs at factories and companies are hard to come by.  Most of the small businesses owners we met were women, raising families and trying to make a living from their homes.  Organizations like Actuar Por Bolivar provide small loans which allow these women to invest in and grow their businesses, and thus improve their quality of life.

The process isn’t perfect.  Not all of the businesses end up being profitable, and not all micro-loans get repaid.  But Actuar works closely with these families to ensure that they receive all the support that is available to them, whether it be financial advice, childcare (remember Las Olimpiadas?), or education.  The goal is to create opportunity and agency for the residents of one of the poorest cities in Colombia, and they’ve made enormous differences for thousands of families – 7,000 so far, in fact.

As part of this mission, they developed the aforementioned program Piso Saludable, translated literally as Healthy Floor, although I like to think of it more as a “Healthy Foundation.”  With a literal and figurative strong foundation, these women are rebuilding their lives and providing better futures for their children.

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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