First Person: María Elena Algarañaz de Masabi

A participant in an MCC-supported economic empowerment program talks about how her life has changed

In 2003 I first came to El Comedor de Niños, an MCC partner which has two community centres providing care for children and workshops for women (and whose name translates as The Children’s Dining Room). My husband was the only one working, so we didn’t have much money. I left school in grade seven and didn’t really have any skills.

Normally here in Bolivia, the husband works and the wife stays at the house. The mother takes care of the children and can’t leave the house because there isn’t someone to take care of the children. My husband is quite a machista, (someone who has a strong sense of traditional gender norms where the man is the head of the house) and he didn’t want me to leave the house.

I went to the Comedor for a year with my children and took workshops without my husband knowing.

I decided I needed to do this when I saw my children were suffering from malnutrition and being underweight. We didn’t have enough money to buy nutritious food, and we didn’t have enough food.

At the Comedor, my children were cared for and given snacks, lunch and nutritional supplements, while I took workshops in sewing and making handicrafts out of a colourful traditional fabric called aguayo. I also took a self-esteem workshop and learned to speak up for myself.

MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

In 2004 my husband found out. He never hit me, but he’s a very big man and spoke very forcefully. He would yell at me and tell me I couldn’t leave the house and got very angry.

For those that knew me when I first came to the Comedor, I couldn’t even talk. I had a lot of shame in talking and I would sometimes cry. The change in me has been very drastic.

“For me, this project has been like my university, my school and my education.”

- María Elena Algarañaz de Masabi

I told my husband, “If you don’t want me to leave (the house to take workshops) and be able to grow, I’ll divorce you.” He was very angry, so I went and made a report to the Defensoría de la Mujer (Women’s Public Defender, a state agency). We talked with a psychologist there, who talked with him about the children being cared for at the centre.

In time, he saw that I wasn’t doing anything wrong by going to the Comedor to learn these skills and, actually, it was good. He changed his tone and his position and became repentant for how he was acting.

He began to support me and eventually actually helped me with my sewing. He started to see what I was doing was not just for me, but was for the well-being of the family. It was good for him, good for the kids and good for me as well.

In 2008 I started working for the Comedor as a social worker with the children. I do that three days a week. During the rest of the week, I make handicrafts out of aguayo with a group called Mujeres sin Limites (Women Without Limits). I’m the president of the group. We all met at the Comedor and now make handicrafts to sell at a market in Montero and at fairs around the country.

I thought I couldn’t do anything other than be a mother. I’ve opened my eyes and have been able to do many things that before I wouldn’t have even dreamt of doing. I’ve taken many workshops over the last 15 years and always want to learn more.

María Elena Algarañaz de Masabi (President of Mujeres sin Limites), Luana Mohina (Public Relations), Delicia Pyarro (Treasurer), María Suarez (another artisan) and Edith Méndez (workshop leader in handicrafts at El Comedor de Niños). MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

For me, this project has been like my university, my school and my education. I was not able to finish school, so this was a good opportunity. But it’s also good for my family. We learned more about nutrition and now I cook with more vegetables. My oldest two sons are studying in university, and I’m able to support them. My youngest son is still in high school, but I hope to see them all graduate from university and become professionals.

For me, the Comedor is not just the place where I work. It’s a home. I don’t ever think about leaving this place.

María Elena Algarañaz de Masabi participated in MCC-supported workshops at El Comedor de Niños in Montero, Bolivia. She now works with a group of women she met there to sell clothing and other items they have sewn at the market and at fairs. She also serves as a social worker at the Comedor.