July 22, 2021

Ecuadorian and Venezuelan Women Emerge as Key Leaders in their Communities

Meet Gina and Nayla who, in a context marked by poverty, xenophobia, and extreme vulnerability, have stepped up to help those around them, thanks to AVSI’s “Activados” project

By Colin Murphy

At first glance, the two sewing machines on Gina’s front porch look ordinary. They sit on a modest wooden table surrounded by plastics bags of fabric, dresses and t-shirts hanging from racks. The house where Gina, her children, and her sewing machines live is in the middle of El Floron 4 – one of the roughest neighborhoods of Portoviejo, Ecuador. Gina’s setup may be modest, but together with an upstart group of seamstresses, she is doing something extraordinary. 

Gina is the leader of an association of eight women who named themselves “Sewing Without Borders.” She’s from Ecuador, but that actually makes her unique among the group. All the other women are from Venezuela. They came to Ecuador fleeing the economic and political crisis in their home country. While many Venezuelan migrants are met with xenophobia and discrimination, Gina approaches the Venezuelan women in the group as equals. “We all respect each other, no matter where someone is from,” she says. 

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Ecuadorians and Venezuelans alike found themselves without work. AVSI Ecuador’s “Activados” project (funded by UNHCR) provided seed capital for entrepreneurship for Venezuelans and Ecuadorians in Manabi Province. Sewing Without Borders formed through this process, and they set to work making facemasks to protect people from COVID, as well as canvas bags that AVSI used to distribute personal hygiene and household cleaning products throughout the city. 

These days, when we think of start-ups, we often picture rooms full of sleek laptops and shiny logos and ad campaigns. The women of Sewing Without Borders have none of these things – they work out of their own homes – but they have built a successful business together. As they worked making hundreds of masks and other textile products, their association became more cohesive. They each do an equal amount of work and they share the profits evenly. They have transitioned into making other items, and now they are beginning to market their own brand with a catalog of products. 

Gina wants to sell pajamas and clothes for girls. She has already made some, and she is excited for what the future holds. There is potential for the association’s clothing line to get picked up by local retailers, and UNHCR’s Made51 program will feature some of their traditional Ecuadorian and Venezuelan textile products in its catalog. When asked if she is the master seamstress, Gina is quick to say that she is just one of the students. She is humble about her skills, but her smile reveals a tremendous pride in her work and the relationships formed with fellow seamstresses. They have found something invaluable – a group of women who trust one another and support each other’s success. 

Nayla (back row center) with the newest members of the Vecinos Activados Committee in Abdon Calderon

About an hour away, in Manta, Nayla greets neighbors and AVSI staff members as they arrive at a community center in the Abdon Calderon neighborhood. She exudes confidence and gives both trusted friends and new acquaintances her full and fixed attention. This is a special day. The neighbors are gathering for the confirmation of a new Vecinos Activados Committee. Part of AVSI’s “Activados” project, the committees are made up of Venezuelans and Ecuadorians and serve as a space to talk about their common problems and work together to find solutions.  

Nayla came from Venezuela in 2018. A single mom, she has to work hard to take care of her kids and make money selling arepas, cheeseburgers, and other foods on the street. She doesn’t just work hard for her family, though. Nayla has emerged as a leader in the Venezuelan community because of her dedication to getting help for her neighbors.

In 2019, Nayla joined the first “Vecinos Activados” Committee in El Palmar neighborhood. In those committee meetings she was an outspoken advocate for her people and laid out very clearly the various problems they faced. This spurred AVSI to connect with other organizations to bring much-needed services to the poor neighborhoods of Manta. 

“In the past, no help arrived in this neighborhood. Nobody came to help us because no one knew that we existed.” Says Nayla. “Thanks to AVSI, other organizations have come here, and we have had opportunities for courses, trainings, and other workshops. AVSI is like the bridge that connects us with other organizations.” 

Nowadays, the front room of Nayla’s house is like an office – like her own community center. Pinned to the wall are maps of service providers in the city, calendars for important dates, and flyers for upcoming workshops and other events. She knows everyone in the neighborhood, and they know they can trust her to help them and give reliable information. 

Nayla stands in front of her “info-wall” in her house

In the next room, Nayla’s daughters try their best to pay attention to online courses being given over phones and tablets. It’s hot in the house – no air conditioning here in the middle of the world – and a barking dog on the street makes concentrating difficult. The girls are studious, but one wonders how far they are falling behind without in-person learning. Perhaps this is a crystallization of the reality for Venezuelan refugees here in Ecuador – for every problem that is solved, there are two more waiting to be addressed. But Nayla is not giving up hope – she is resolved to keep working for her family and neighbors. 

In a context marked by poverty, xenophobia, and extreme vulnerability, these two women have stepped up to help those around them. We can each learn something from them – whether we need help or we are in a position to provide assistance. AVSI will continue to support leaders like Gina and Nayla in Ecuador and around the world.