I hate meetings. In fact, I’ve pretty much developed a career around avoiding them. So I was somewhat dismayed when my introduction to Heifer Peru came in the form of a women’s meeting in Puno – a city about 14,000 feet above sea level in the south Central Highlands near beautiful Lake Titicaca.
Luckily, this meeting was like no women’s networking session I’d ever attended. For one thing, everyone had the same hairdo. The room was a sea of long black braids, topped by outrageously insouciant hats, tilted just so.
Instead of power pantsuits and hire-me heels, these women were decked out in abundantly colorful, multi-tiered skirts, intricately embroidered vests and spangled blazers. And while listening intently, almost every woman was simultaneously knitting or crocheting– hence getting a lot accomplished. I loved it!
The women were there to celebrate Heifer’s FEED project, in existence for 4 years with a mission to improve food security, nutrition and income, and encourage women in eight Puno rural communities to produce and collectively sell their handicrafts.
Like many of Heifer Peru’s projects, the FEED program is aligned with a local organization called APACHETA, The Center of Andean Development (obviously, Peruvians are as acronym-crazed as we are). While Heifer guides, funds and monitors APACHETA’s activities with 700 Peruvian women and their families, the leader of that organization is Cleida Incacutipa, a formidable 6-foot tall woman who used to work for Heifer but is now boots-on-the-ground in APACHETA’s drive to improve the lives of Puno women in ways both simple and complex.
The “simple” part is giving women the animals and the trainings to improve their families’ nutrition and income – teaching them how to grow more potatoes, breed the animals for income, and produce more high-quality handicrafts. More complex is developing leadership capabilities in these women farmers, training them to advocate for themselves in their households, neighborhoods, and local governments. To say Cleida has a gift for this kind of work is an understatement: she knows every woman’s name and personal history, she’s hugely dedicated, and she believes passionately in their capacity to achieve.
In a world where women are often not allowed to attend or speak in their local village meetings (not to mention their own households), Heifer’s gender equity sessions represent nothing less than a quiet revolution. From dealing with domestic violence to organizing a Congress of Female Farmers to running for local office, these women graduates of the gender workshops are taking the empowerment ball and running with it – especially the three fabulous rabble-rousers I sat down and talked to, while their friends were busy displaying their award-winning handicrafts on hilariously Caucasian manikins.
The women spoke again and again of the life-altering discovery that “I have a voice.” Once they truly embraced that, it was natural to begin to ask for things for themselves: workshops and looms to improve their community handicrafts, municipal help to support their entrepreneurial efforts, and always, in the Heifer way, offering to share knowledge and decision-making with other women to lift them up, too.
At the end of the long afternoon, I woke up to the shopping opportunities at hand, bought some beautiful hats, and got hugged about a million times around the neck. It was just about my favorite meeting ever.