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The Nuns Helping Women Build Businesses in El Salvador

After witnessing the tragedies of civil war in El Salvador, Sister Anne Marie Gardiner made it her mission to support female entrepreneurs as they become self-sustaining, challenge traditional gender roles and inspire their children to give something back to their communities.

Written by Christine Bolaños Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A woman at one of SEW’s bakeries in El Salvador teaches Sister Anne Marie Gardiner how to make a pastry. Photo Courtesy of Karyn at Las Delicias

While Anne Marie Gardiner was at grade school in the Maryland community of Bryantown during the 1950s, she used to watch her older brother fetch, carry and ring the altar bell on Sundays, at funerals and at weddings. She knew all the Latin responses and dreamed of becoming a Roman Catholic priest – a role forbidden to her because she is female. As she grew older, she found another way to use her faith to help people: she became a nun.

In 1963, Gardiner joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), an international congregation of women who collaborate with organizations helping immigrants, peacemakers, those in extreme poverty and trafficked women. During Christmas of 1990, she and Sister Marie Chiodo from another congregation, Daughters of Wisdom, traveled from Maryland to El Salvador to visit SSND’s Cathy Arata, who was working there. In the hopes of learning more about the country – which was wracked by a civil war that had been going on for a decade – they met a women’s sewing group in a remote mountainous village.

“Sister Cathy believed [they] could help us understand the situation of Salvadorans enduring the war and how many communities like theirs had organized to resist the U.S.-funded military assault on its own people,” says Gardiner.

It would be two more years before the signing of the Peace Accords, and the village was in a part of the country controlled by the opposition, rather than the military. “So the village itself was very peaceful, welcoming and – because it was Christmas – there was a party with food and dancing in which we took part,” recalls Gardiner.

Beyond the village, however, the fighting raged on. “You could hear the sounds of war everywhere,” says Gardiner, now 73.

After that visit, Gardiner returned to El Salvador several times. During a trip in 2001, she went seeking advice from some of the country’s women leaders, who were working with women in various regions. She asked them a life-altering question: “Dream with me. How can we assist women in getting out of inhumane poverty?”

They replied that women wanted small businesses in their own villages so they could work close to home and produce items locally to help boost their own economy. With that idea as its foundation, the Maryland-based nonprofit Salvadoran Enterprises for Women (SEW) was established in 2003. Today, the organization is helping about 300 women entrepreneurs launch and run a range of businesses, including an indigo-dyeing and sewing co-op, an artisan co-op, hen farms, a cheese business and a restaurant.

Gardiner spoke to Women & Girls Hub about reversing traditional gender roles and building confidence in future generations.

Women & Girls: How big an impact do you think entrepreneurial women in El Salvador can make in a society where they are stigmatized for their gender?

Anne Marie Gardiner: I think they already have a huge impact. The women have shown younger women there are options for them in the workplace. They’re always trying to grow their businesses and incorporate new women into their businesses. They’re training other women to move away from the traditional gender roles and take positions of leadership in government and civic groups. The SEW women will never be shy to raise their voices.

Women & Girls: These women are working toward better futures for their children. What do you think this means for the coming generations?

Gardiner: It means not just the roles of girls are changing, but the roles of boys as well. Hopefully, future teenage boys and men will be respectful of women and work with them in a mutual way. The SEW women have sons who are taking on new roles of helping in the house, such as with laundry, cooking, cleaning and helping with the younger kids. As they get older, they help in the business by stacking shelves and counting inventory. I don’t know that they have learned to sew yet, but they brag about their moms! For example, they brag about their school uniforms and let their friends know their moms made them.

Through SEW’s collaboration with Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS), [a San Salvador-based organization that runs programs to support education, organization and social justice] many of the women’s children have gained scholarships for both high school and university; this provides them with opportunities beyond the agricultural sector. They are learning the goal is not to get smart and then leave the country for a job somewhere else, but to use their skills and new learning to benefit their community and their own country.

Leslie Schuld, middle, executive director of Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad, and SEW’s Anne Marie Gardiner, right, show Maryland State delegate Jimmy Tarlau, left, around the Romero Community, a Salvadoran village where people are building the community from the ground up with support from both organizations. (Christine Bolaños)

Women & Girls: What makes SEW different from other organizations with similar missions?

Gardiner: We start with personal development. We don’t assume women can just sit at a sewing machine, learn to sew and start a business. We ensure the women in the restaurant will have the confidence to deal with customers. We are committed to having our staff accompany the women as they develop their businesses, so they become confident and have the skills and training and can become self-sustaining as partners.

Women & Girls: Can you give concrete examples about how SEW has helped change the lives of women?

Gardiner: Eleven women who run Pájaro Flor – a sewing, embroidery and indigo-dying workshop in Suchitoto – were gifted 20 sewing machines by an NGO, which taught them to sew and then left. In working with our staff, the women developed a business and learned how to make the sewing products in styles that would be popular with tourists as well as local people. They were given a space in a Casa de Mujeres building, owned by a women’s coalition. As they became successful, they would work 12 hours and sleep there.

The husbands were very suspicious; many of them didn’t want the women working. A couple of the husbands came to the building at night, not believing their wives were actually working there. Now, one of the women said, her husband fixes dinner for the family.

This is also true of the women who head La Vaquita, a [San Salvador] cheese business, where the husbands will often take the products to markets and the older children in the family are taking more responsibility at home.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Reporting for this story was supported by The International Women’s Media Foundation.

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