The missing puzzle piece

I was 22 when I found myself in Cambodia feeling overwhelmed and more than helpless as I walked the small town streets of Siem Reap, a little tuk tuk ride away from the towering ruins of Angkor Wat. The local people were still reeling from the devastation of Pol Pot’s reign and the scars of war were everywhere. The bodies of people were maimed and torn apart by the land mines, their minds twisted by the senseless torture endured for too many years, but their hearts were still hopeful.

Each day we were approached by people who had swallowed their pride to reach out their hands and ask for help, for money, for acknowledgement and for a fair go. They wanted desperately to be able to be a part of the future of Cambodia and its tourism industry and they were waiting for the opportunity to be in the position to reach out their hands and offer up their energy and entrepreneurial spirit to build the beautiful country back up again.

This was the first time that I felt that tourism could be more and do more for a country than fill the pockets of the few and leave the many feeling little more than a spectacle at the ‘foreign zoo’. That it wouldn’t just benefit the ‘white adventurers’ with ‘worldly insights’ and ‘experience’ but that it could provide systemic change within the country if it was thoughtfully and creatively considered.

That was 12 years ago and I have continued to hold the experience of Cambodia close to my heart as I traversed the world over. My eyes have been open to the various models out there and my notebooks are filled with different ideas of how to empower people and give them a fair go in the tourist trade. But nothing has really seemed to fit or make sense. They all seem a little skewed, a little biased, a little ‘white saviour’, at least to me.

That is until yesterday. I finally found something that fit the space in my heart that was created in Cambodia and continues to throb every day.

I had the privilege to meet and tour the communities around Oaxaca, Mexico, with the Founder of Foundacion En Via, an organisation that provides 100% interest free loans to the women of Oaxaca. These loans are used to help them start or grow small enterprises and participate in the economic prosperity of the region.

The women we met were full of entrepreneurial spirit, ideas and courage – they just needed a leg up and a fair go. The odds were stacked against them from birth. You see, loans for the ‘unbanked’ or asset poor people of Mexico attract 110% interest and debt is inherited across generations. Even those organisations focussed on micro financing offer on average, 30% interest on their loans. This is an extraordinary barrier and means that these women, who are also raising children and looking after elderly parents with, at times, little support from heir husbands who are working in construction in the States, are left with very few options for economic participation. They leave primary school (or high school if they are lucky) to become maids, cleaners and factory workers. These women let go of their dreams and aspirations and usually at a very early age.

However, what I saw through En Via and meeting seven of the loan recipients is fierce courage and pride and a remarkable opportunity to break the wicked cycle of inequality. Inequality of opportunity, of aspirations and dreams. Each story was remarkable but there was one that will hold Oaxaca and En Via in my heart, alongside Cambodia forever more.

We met Iris, who was about 20. A well put together lady, who was poised and graceful as she stood in the backyard of her family compound and presented her beauty and makeup business to us. Before En Via Iris was a maid. And before that, she was one of the top of her school class when she found out she was pregnant at age 13. She had to leave school and became a maid for a foreign expat to support her son. She did this for a few years, working long hours and seeing very little of her son and family. She saw the foreign ladies who would come over wearing lots of makeup and would sign the receipts for many international DHL deliveries for her employer from Mary Kay beauty. She decided that she could be a Mary Kay representative in Oaxaca. She just needed money and a fair go.

Her mother and sister in law were already in the En Via group and invited Iris to join. Participants must be invited to join a group of three women, who work together to support each other build their businesses and pay off their loans. They are supported with education and training courses on how to manage finances, marketing and promotion of their businesses. First time loans are offered at $1500 pesos (about $120 AUD) and have about 15 weeks to pay back. That was enough for Iris to complete the Mary Kay course and use her maid income to pay off the interest free loan. Because of her group’s great loan payment history she was able to apply for a second level loan, which got her enough stock to start promoting and selling Mary Kay products. Once that was paid off, she was able to apply for the next level of loan to build her business further.

Iris is now a very successful and savvy businesswomen with aspirations to become a makeup artist. She is no longer a maid and as a result of her new business venture, she has more time to engage with her son’s school and volunteer in the community. She had formidable confidence and a wicked smile. She did it. She broke the cycle of inequality of opportunity – she is taking her aspirations back and claiming that dream.

All the women had similar stories – of both personal and business growth. What was also extraordinary to witness was the change that has been bought into the communities with the army of En Via female entrepreneurs and business women. They are participating in schools, in churches, in local government. They are present and accounted for. They matter and they are making it happen themselves, with a fair go and little leg up from En Via.

En Via isn’t perfect and doesn’t profess to be. But for me, who has been searching for the thing that seems to make sense, this was inspiring. It was thought provoking. It was encouraging. It was a piece that fit nicely into the puzzle that I have been trying to work out since all those years ago in Siem Reap. The puzzle isn’t finished but it sure feels a little closer to being finished.

P xx

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