My Visit With The Amazing Women of Ñepi Behña
Paula Vlamings, a former Thousand Currents Board Member, wrote this blog when she returned from a memorable and inspiring partner visit with the women of Ñepi Behña (Women of Dignity), one of Thousand Currents’ partners that supports several women’s cooperatives in the area of Hildalgo, north of Mexico City.
Along with Katherine, IDEX’s* Program Manager of Grassroots Alliances** and several staff members of Ñepi Behña, we piled into a pickup van and headed out from Mexico City for a 2-hour drive to the region of Valle de Mezquital.
Adriana, the director, tells us that yellow flowers called Xempaxutchi, would be brought back for the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. This flower grows in very arid parts of inland Mexico and they had hoped to bring the flowers back last time they visited, but there was a freeze and all the flowers died.
For generations, the freeze came only in December and January but with climate change, it came in October, and can sometimes last through March. This change has had a significant impact on food production, which in turn has impacted migration and the makeup of the community we are visiting.
An Important Part of the Local Economy
The men have been leaving to look for work in neighboring cities and the U.S. because there are so little opportunities in this region. In fact, over seventy percent of the men in this community will migrate as early as age 15.
The global financial crisis has seen many returning, but there is still no employment here. The women are the only source of income for most of the families in the community and we are visiting one of their small enterprises where they making bath scrubs.
Along the way, we are stopped on the highway. We don’t know why until Adriana gets out to find out what’s going on. It seems the local community that lives on this part of the highway were being forced or induced by big agriculture businesses to sell their land. In retaliation, they closed the highway!
This led to an interesting conversation on land rights, farmers and NAFTA. When NAFTA was passed in 1997, the rights of local farmers all across Mexico were impacted. Then in 2010, NAFTA was opened to corn and other grains, causing the situation to become even worse for local farmers, and the price of food has skyrocketed.
We eventually turn off the main road and drive through an arid landscape with mountains, rivers, cactus, and arrive in a hillside town of El Alberto, a community of 600 people in low-slung concrete buildings, with cemeteries that rise up from the brush, and dirt roads.
We arrived during the late day heat in front of a white two-story building with a bright pink banister – the community center of Ya Muntsi Behña.
Women Artisans Lead the Way With Their Entrepreneurial Skills
The women built the community center with money they earned from the bath scrub business. The women have learned to administer their own finances and have rotating leadership roles in the business.
They make and sell a staggering 15,000 bath scrubs to the Body Shop every 3 months. They are looking for smaller merchants in Mexico City to expand their business.
A group of mostly elderly women gather together under the shade of the front entrance, chatting away and crocheting the bath sponges in various shapes and sizes.
The crochet needles are tiny – a #4. The bath scrubs are made from the agave plant that grows like a weed here. The leaves are burned, then peeled like a roasted pepper, and the fibers inside are washed and spun into the thin course yarn.
As each woman enters, they come up to us, shake our hand and greet us. They are compact women, weathered from the sun with long black hair pulled into a braid down their back. A few of the braids have turned grey. They are continuously crocheting as they chat, walk, and wait.
We attend a scheduled workshop put on by Ñepi Behña on the prevention of STDs. This has become an issue in the community after the migrant men return bringing home diseases. For the most part, the men do not participate in the bath scrub business.
Dinner is communal with various women bringing tortillas they made, warm and wrapped in dish towels. Fried eggs, lentils, rice, homemade salsa and two kinds of meat in sauce have been prepared and we gobble down the food. They are the most delicious corn tortillas I have ever tasted.
How the Bath Scrubs Have Shifted Patriarchal Attitudes
One woman tells us that unlike most husbands, hers supported her working and she could leave the house whenever she wanted. He evens helps sometimes, she tell us. He knits or makes the thread.
She tells us the men actually make better yarn because they pull it onto the spool harder. Another said that before they had the income from the scrubs, she couldn’t leave the house without permission. The women needed to be there when the men wanted them to take care of things or feed them.
She said now that she has income for the family, she could leave when she wants and her husband will wait until she gets home to eat. It is clear the ability to make money has provided not only income but has changed their standing in the community and in the home.
The day we spent with these strong and industrious women was such a testament to the work IDEX is doing.
Without organizations to support and train small enterprises like this one, these women and these entire communities would have very little opportunity for income and becoming self-sufficient.
*Thousand Currents changed its name from IDEX in 2016
**Katherine Zavala is Thousand Currents’ current Regional Director for Latin America and former Program Manager of Grassroots Alliances