It’s 6 p.m. and Irene Abrego Paraba greets a client outside her home in Montero, Bolivia. As the sun sets, she pulls a chair and small table from her house and delicately sets down a hairbrush, comb, clips and a blow dryer. She’s ready to get to work.
Paraba furrows her brow in concentration as she blow-dries Moe Isakari’s hair, brushes it and clips sections to begin French braiding, creating an attractive up-do for a party. When she finishes, Paraba proudly holds a mirror in front of her client, eliciting a bright smile from Isakari.
Just a few years ago, Paraba’s life looked a lot different than it does now.
The mother of five was in an abusive relationship with her husband and scraped together a bit of money by washing clothes for people in the community. Paraba says her children didn’t have a healthy diet. They were afraid of their father who yelled and sometimes hit them. The family couldn’t afford all their school supplies.
Paraba realized something needed to change. She left her husband and began to envision her life differently.
“I realized I needed to do something for my family,” Paraba says. “Modeling a different way of being a Bolivian woman is for my family.”
In 2011, she walked by a center of El Comedor de Niños (the Comedor), an MCC partner which has two children’s community centers and whose name translates as The Children’s Dining Room. The organization was started to improve health outcomes among children from low-income households and now provides care for children and workshops for adults. Paraba learned about the trainings available in things like cooking, baking, hairdressing, plumbing and electricity and even self-esteem and decided to sign up.
To date, Paraba has taken seven different workshops, courses that range in length from five to 10 months, and she is using her new skills to supplement her income and support her children on her own.
Because of her experience with the training modules on electricity and plumbing, she was able to get a cleaning and maintenance job at the center.
And the skills she learned in doing manicures and pedicures and cutting and styling hair mean that, on a typical weekend day, she can earn an additional $7 to $10 — more than twice what she would make for a day of washing clothes.
Now Paraba can afford to buy her children school supplies and fruits and vegetables. She says she’s also grown as a person and become more confident.
“I think I’d still be washing clothes if it wasn’t for the Comedor,” Paraba says. “I think I’d still be a timid, submissive person.”
For the last 20 years, the Comedor, which has two centers in different neighborhoods, has worked to bring change to the lives of families in Montero.
Today the centers provide a safe place for children to go after school to have their homework supervised and learn about nutrition and hygiene. The children garden together, learn about fruits and vegetables and even take home a share of the harvest.
Skills workshops like the ones Paraba took fill an important gap in a community where finding formal employment is difficult and many people resort to selling produce, driving motorcycle taxis or cleaning.
But the Comedor also helps women face challenges beyond earning a living.
In Montero, women have especially high illiteracy rates and are sometimes subject to exploitation and discrimination because of their socioeconomic status and gender. According to the Center for Information and Development of Women in Bolivia, seven out of 10 women in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz region, where Montero is located, have experienced violence, often within their families.
"I think I’d still be washing clothes if it wasn’t for the Comedor.”
- Irene Abrego Paraba
Sometimes, husbands are reluctant to see their wives go to workshops at the Comedor or to start to think about working outside the home, says Nathan Toews of North Newton, Kansas. He and his wife, Leidy Muñoz, serve as MCC representatives for Bolivia.
“When women leave the home to go to workshops like the ones the Comedor offers or go to work, some men see it as a threat to the idea that they can take care of their own family,” Toews explains.
The Comedor has psychologists who work with families, and staff plan activities that include husbands and fathers.
Trainings in self-esteem strive to boost the confidence of women and help them feel empowered in their families.
But another powerful way of promoting self-esteem and confidence is through the workshops on topics like hairdressing, electricity, plumbing, cooking and baking.
It’s a humid afternoon, and women clad in white clothes and hairnets gather around an electric mixer as an instructor cracks eggs and stirs in flour and sugar. They are making a beautiful dulce de leche cake — and they are building experience they can soon translate into income.
That’s how it worked for Jakelin Castillo Montero.
She took part in cooking and baking workshops at the Comedor, going back to learn new recipes to expand her repertoire.
For the last three years, Montero has woken at 5:30 a.m. to prepare dough for pizza rolls, doughnuts and empanadas. Later in the morning she works with the dough and prepares trays and trays of desserts and snacks.
Once the food is ready, Montero’s daughters, who are 19, 21 and 22 years old, sell it at clinics, a hospital and market.
It’s because of her daughters that Montero started her business in the first place. She says she wanted to be able to support them to get higher education. Montero currently helps her eldest, Carla Guzmán Castillo, who is a law student at the local university, pay for books and some school fees.
What women learn at the Comedor can pay dividends for years to come.
A group of women who met there between 2003 and 2006 learned to knit, sew and weave aguayo, traditional Bolivian fabric with colorful patterns, and they began making wallets, purses and clothing. As their skills improved, the women analyzed the quality of their products and eventually decided to start an artisan collective called Mujeres sin Limites (Women Without Limits).
Each month, members put aside 10 percent of their earnings to buy supplies and grow the business. Together, they’ve been able to buy three sewing machines. Savings also pay for transportation and food when one member represents the group at fairs around the country. They split the profits equally. More than 15 years later, the group is still going strong. (Read more about a participant)
That kind of long-term growth is what Paraba dreams of as she plans for her own salon. She’s slowly paying off a piece of property in Montero and wants to build a home-based business complete with a specialized chair, mirror and sink for hair styling.
Paraba’s daughter, Vania Irene Chavez Abrego, 15, is planning to go into business with her. The teen has been taking classes at the Comedor after school and wants to use her skills to earn enough money to attend university. She sees this as a way of reaching her goal of becoming a journalist, and her mother is her motivation.
“There isn’t another woman like my mother. I feel very proud of my mom,” Abrego says through tears. “She’s my inspiration.”