On August 30th, dozens of women from rural parts of Panama’s Chagres Alhajuela region gathered to discuss the successes and struggles of running a business as mothers and wives. The women’s forum was held by the Consejo Consultivo, an organization formed by the Panama Canal Authority, which supports Panamanians living within the Panama Canal watershed.
A Strong Panel
Four female panelists were the highlight of the forum, serving as an inspiration to women and children in the audience. All had worked hard to earn their high school diplomas, an achievement that isn’t common in rural Panamanian communities.
During the panel, each spoke about the challenges and achievements they’ve had on their path to bringing in a sustainable household income while balancing their roles as mothers and wives.
Cristiana Dogirama is an indigenous Embera woman who was displaced by war in the Darién in 2000. She moved north to Llano Bonito, where she currently lives with her family and runs her business as an artisan in bead artwork and basket weaving. She is also part of the Picaflor cooperative in her community, where she makes bread and corn products. Persistence and being a fighter are Dogirama’s two biggest strengths; she believes when women focus on something they can achieve it.
When asked about what was difficult being a woman entrepreneur in a rural area, Cristiana responded that she received pushback from those around her, including her husband, who believed women can’t simultaneously be business owners and mothers. She’s since proved them wrong, saying that being a business owner “isn’t easy, but it’s not hard either.”
Dogirama says she balances her family and business by being organized and planning ahead. On the days she works at the women’s cooperative, she cooks in advance for her kids and husband.
Annette Martínez is from the lakeside community of Tranquilla, and she works with other women in her community on numerous projects, including selling bread and tamales, beekeeping, and being the president of Tranquilla’s tourism project. She’s fiercely independent, which she defined as her greatest strength during the forum.
Martínez says her biggest struggle was the feeling of wanting to be someone but being under the impression that it was impossible since she had children. With the support of the Consejo Consultivo giving her an opportunity to graduate from high school with a focus in tourism, she realized that she could help her family live off something more than fishing, the job of many people in her community.
When asked about how she balances her family and business, Martínez responded that she’s never been the type of woman who’s content staying inside the house and letting her husband rule the roost; husbands and wives must share the work and support each other. Her motivation for getting involved in business was so that she could have money to send her kids to study outside of their community.
Reyna Mojica is from Salamanquita in the province of Colón. Being a busy mother of four hasn’t stopped her from starting a bread business called IsabelBakery, which she launched during the pandemic after studying bread and pastry-making virtually. Mojica credits God as her strength to overcome the challenges of building her business while balancing time for her family, whom she loves very much.
Mojica was determined to graduate from high school, and she did just that. She encourages mothers to overcome the same challenge, urging them to find someone trustworthy to leave their children with so that mothers can focus on their studies, which will ultimately benefit their families.
Mojica says that when it comes to balancing her business and family, both are important to her, so she puts her all into ensuring they’re attended to well. She gives the example of balancing her time between her bread work and helping her kids with their homework.
Zulay Guevara started making mango salad in her community of Nuevo Caimitillo, which transpired into her being the business owner of two kiosks. People also now ask her to make food for events, with tamales being a favorite request. Guevara wants women to know this: Wives don’t have to rely on their husbands for financial survival.
One of Guevara’s biggest challenges was getting an education. With the support of her mom, who also wanted to graduate from high school, they went to night school, graduating with their high school diplomas. Upon receiving a grant for college, Guevara expanded her mango salad sales into the business she now runs today, motivated to help her and her mom pay for their transportation and food to get to and from their university.
To Guevara, being organized is the most important quality a woman can have when balancing their work and business. She also builds her schedule around times that prioritize both her customers and family; she works extra hours during the two monthly periods when Panamanians get paid, allowing her to work less around important family events, church on Sundays, and other family commitments.
During the forum, the four women were asked how they believe communities can help women become business owners and achieve financial independence. Dogirama responded that a community should involve women in everything instead of dividing tasks between “women’s jobs” and “men’s jobs.”
Meanwhile, Martínez encourages women to leave their timidness behind instead of staying hidden inside their houses. She urges women to free themselves of the mindset that living in a rural area means there’s no way they can make something of themselves.
Mojica believes that women within a community are responsible for helping to lift each other up. She says she teaches other women how to make baked goods for free and hopes they, too, pass on the knowledge and her “I can” attitude to others.
Governmental institutions should also make an effort to come to rural communities, says Guevara. She explains it’s hard for women who live far from civilization and without upfront capital to arrive at schools and training facilities to become educated in a skill that can lead to a business. Furthermore, she implores institutions to actively seek out women to participate in their training.
Beyond the Panel
The Consejo Consultivo organized a series of speakers for attendees of the women’s forum. Among them included the Panamanian Women’s Ministry, a talk about self-care and domestic violence by a psychologist, and a medical doctor speaking about women’s health topics.
A boxed lunch was offered to attendees at the end of the event, along with the opportunity to purchase the women’s products at vendor stands.