Improving Living Standards and Self-fulfilment of Refugee Women in Latin America


The RET’s regional programme in Latin America (Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, and since September 2012, Venezuela) funded by the Bureau of Population Refugee and Migration of the Department of State of the United States promotes the integration of asylum seekers and refugees into the local society in a holistic manner. It covers psychosocial individual and group support as well as educational orientation to ensure access to and retention in the education system. It also offers support for income generation activities such as entrepreneurial projects and vocational training as well as raising awareness of refugee-related issues amongst the staff of local institutions and other social actors.


“Through our interventions, we pay special attention to the integration of women and girls”, said Carolina Chavarría, RET’s previous Country Coordinator for Costa Rica. Her successor, Grettel Gamboa, adds “We implement concrete actions which aim to empower women and improve their living standards as well as bring them a sense of self-fulfilment for every stage of their life”.




Over the past year, the RET in Costa Rica has supported approximately 10 entrepreneurial projects managed by women in the Provinces of Alajuela and Heredia, Costa Rica. One of these women is Maria, a fashion designer from Colombia who had a business back home. Emotionally unstable since she arrived to Costa Rica in late 2011, Maria has benefitted from a weekly, then monthly psychological support which progressively helped her get out of her depression. She was then encouraged to start over with her clothing business in Heredia. She received guidance to make market surveys and feasibility studies. She also received a sewing machine and materials to start her activities. Nowadays, Maria is a very active, positive, hard-working woman who has become a role model for other women who are going through difficult situations and experiencing the trauma associated with being uprooted. Recently, she took an active part in the commemoration of the World Refugee Day and proudly told the story of her life to the local media.


In Ecuador, Susana*, a young Colombian who arrived to Ecuador two years ago with her four children, joined the RET’s Livelihoods Programme together with 150 other women in Lago Agrio, Esmeraldas, San Lorenzo and Quito. Thanks to the RET’s technical support, Susana was able to restore her small sausage business which was bankrupt. The RET contributed to the materials she needed and trained her in hygiene and food processing, loan management and profitability, saving and reinvestment. She learned how to keep accounting records, generate a portfolio of customers and establish partnerships with suppliers. Thanks to the RET’s psychosocial support Susana has also significantly improved her family’s health and living conditions, and her children are now performing well at school. Susana has recently used her new savings to buy a piece of land on which to build a house for her family.


In addition to the livelihood activities, in Costa Rica, 50 refugee women participate in empowerment sessions. These sessions are chaired by a psychologist together with the support of educators, anthropologists, sociologists and education counsellors. The women are invited to exchange freely on topics such as body image and body awareness, sexual relationships, self-esteem. Women use this dialogue space to share the specific challenges they face due to their refugee status. “Each one of us has demonstrated an incredible sense of solidarity”, says a participant. “We understand each other so well because we experience similar difficulties. It is very helpful to have such a space to share and help each other, and to receive RET team’s support and advice”.


As for young girls, the RET promotes their empowerment through intercultural diversity activities in schools. It aims at tackling problems of low self-esteem, discrimination and vulnerabilities. One of the young girls is 16-year-old Marta, a young black refugee in Costa Rica from Colombia. Marta has faced multiple discriminations related to her origins, ethnicity, migratory status and gender. Ten months ago, Marta started participating in the intercultural diversity groups in her high school. This activity has helped raise her self-esteem: “I feel much more confident and I am very grateful for the support I received from my girlfriends in the group”, she says. The RET team noted that Marta is now more creative and has developed a stronger sense of belonging to her host community and country.


These examples all highlight the RET’s efforts to address the challenges specific to gender, age and diversity in a manner that takes into account the individual circumstances of each beneficiary and offers solutions that are as holistic as possible.

  • Susana is not her real name.