Montero, Bolivia

Women without limits

MONTERO, Obispo Santisteven Province, Bolivia – It’s a hot, humid morning and Maria Elena Algarañaz de Masabi is working at a booth displaying brightly coloured handicrafts for sale. She carefully lays out cloth purses and drawstring bags and hangs up knit children’s clothes.

Masabi is the president of Mujeres sin Limites (Women Without Limits, MSL), an artisan collective in Montero, a city in the Santa Cruz department of Bolivia. The group of 12 women work together to make and sell handicrafts to supplement their household incomes.

Handicrafts made by Mujeres sin Limites are sold at a booth in Montero, Bolivia.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

All 12 women learned these skills at El Comedor de Niños, an MCC partner. The Comedor provides after school care for children, but also offers workshops in everything from nutrition, self-esteem and basic health care to cooking, hairdressing and sewing.

Between 2003 and 2006 the women took part in workshops at the Comedor. During this time, they learned to knit, sew, and weave fabric called Aguayo, which is traditional Bolivian fabric with colourful patterns. Members of the collective began making products, including guitar cases, wallets, purses and clothing. As they improved, the women analyzed the quality of their products and eventually decided to start a business together.

None of the members attended university and Masabi didn’t even finish primary school, but all feel they’ve learned a great deal from the workshops.

Masabi knits at the Mujeres sin Limites booth.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

“We don’t have education, but we’ve graduated from the Comedor,” Masabi says. “The Comedor has opened the door for us and because of that we’ve gone very far. It’s so beautiful.”

“The Comedor has opened the door for us and because of that we’ve gone very far. It’s so beautiful.” - Maria Elena Algarañaz de Masabi

In addition to learning how to make the handicrafts, the women were taught basic business management skills through the Comedor, including the importance of saving.

Each month, members of MSL put aside 10 per cent of their earnings to buy more supplies and grow the business. Together, they’ve been able to buy three sewing machines. The savings are also used to pay for transportation and food when one member represents the group at fairs around the country. They split the profits equally.

All materials and machines are collectively owned and shared.

“With these rules we’ve been able to keep the group going,” Masabi says.

Maria Elena Algarañaz de Masabi, the president of Mujeres sin Limites, hugs the treasurer of the group, Delicia Pyarro next to their handicraft booth in Montero, Bolivia.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

The group also helped Masabi overcome a personal obstacle.

Masabi’s husband is a large, brash man who verbally abused her when he found out she was attending classes at the Comedor. She stood up for herself and went against the cultural norm because her family needed the extra income.

“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,” she explains.

Maria Elena Algarañaz de Masabi works part-time as a social worker at El Comedor de Niños, an MCC partner.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

She and her husband managed to work through their differences and today he is supportive of her business and her part-time work at the Comedor where she works as a social worker. She credits the Comedor and the other members of MSL for their support.

“That’s why our group is called Women Without Limits. We don’t have limits.” - Maria Elena Algarañaz de Masabi

“It was a challenge, but not impossible. We do it all together and we’ve succeeded,” Masabi says. “That’s why our group is called Women Without Limits. We don’t have limits.”