From Guatemala: The Reality of Living on $1 a Day

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Around the world, one out of every six human beings lives in extreme poverty, struggling to survive on about one $1 a day or less. The majority of those people are women. What is living on a dollar a day really like? This Fall, Ritu Sharma, President and Co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, traveled to Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Central America, to find out.


For four days, she lived in the municipality (county) of Tactic in the area of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, a lush and mountainous region that contains some of the most desperate poverty in Latin America. She wore the same clothes, ate only what one dollar would buy her, and spent as much time as possible with three incredible Mayan women—Margarita, Dorotea, and Eluvia—who live on a dollar or less every day of their lives. The following an excerpt from her diary.


I decided to try living on a dollar a day last year when I was in Nicaragua. There are about 1.4 billion people worldwide, most of whom are moms and kids, in extreme poverty. This is defined as living on approximately one dollar per day or less. Often, that dollar has to pay not just for one person’s needs, but for those of a whole family.

As President and Co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, I spend my days in Washington, D.C., advocating on behalf of the world’s most impoverished women. I wanted to see how far a dollar would go, and to feel, if even in a small way, what it is like to be that poor. I can never fully understand how the world looks through the eyes of a woman living in poverty, but if I can have a small window into her experience, I think I can be a more empathetic advocate on her behalf.

Day One

7 a.m.—Breakfast
I enjoy a delicious breakfast of a small portion of beans, a scrambled egg, two tortillas, an eight of a fried plantain and a cup of tea (see my food diary for a breakdown of what a dollar a day can buy in food). After tallying up the cost, I realize I’ll have to live with the memory of this breakfast for a while: I’ve already spent 4Q (or 48 cents), half my budget for the day!

I am desperate for some tissues for my runny nose and some cold medicine. To my horror I discover that tissues are 2Q for a small packet and cold medicine runs at about 1Q per tablet! Already I have to choose between eating and medicine. I start thinking about what I would do if my two boys (five and ten) needed medicine; I think I’d make the same choice most poor mothers make: I wouldn’t eat that day.

Day Two
8 a.m.— Meet Margarita
After a bumpy trip up the mountains, we arrive in the community of Bempec, a small village of thirty-two homes and approximately 150 people. We are warmly greeted by Margarita, a sixty-four year-old mother of eleven, outside her one-room, 6 × 20 foot home, which I would call more of a shelter. The walls are made from slats of wood cut from local trees and the floor is made of dirt pressed flat by bare feet. If a family can afford the 3,000Q ($360), which Margarita was able to save for over several months, the roof is corrugated tin, which provides a modicum of protection from wind and rain. If not, it is made from grasses and leaves woven into a basket-like covering.

We take our seats inside the “kitchen” area (a fire pit and a few old cups hanging from the wall) and begin chatting. Margarita and her young daughter-in-law, Isabel, are shucking kernels of corn off the cobs and into a basket (which they will grind and make into tortillas, the staple food). They invite me to join and Margarita jokes that I could be her daughter.

A few moments later, Isabel lovingly lifts an infant out of a plastic sack strung like a hammock behind her. I hadn’t even noticed the “crib,” it looked like a bunch of plastic bags rumpled up together. The baby, Angela Marcela, is seven months old, though she is about the size of a healthy three-month old baby. Seeing such a beautiful, innocent baby in such desperate poverty hits me hard. This is where poverty takes its real toll.


9 a.m.—“Girls Play Soccer Right Along with the Boys”
We walk (slide) down a muddy rut of a path to the school where Margarita’s two littlest daughters and son are registering for classes in Bempec’s only primary school. The school is Bempec’s first—a two room shack with a corrugated roof—that was built by the community after families got tired of sending their children on a dangerous sixty minute walk to a nearby community to attend classes.

The teacher, Victor, proudly introduces his class to us and shares his enlightened (and extremely rare) philosophy of education: he is teaching these children more than letters and numbers, he is teaching them that girls and boys are equals, that, in school, the girls play soccer right along with the boys. He tells us that the gorgeous Mayan girls in his class face three levels of discrimination—they are girls, they are indigenous people, and they are poor. He knows the enormous challenges they will face in their lives. Despite their energy and drive, most will never make it to secondary school, will marry young, and will never be able to produce enough food to fully feed their children, simply because they have not been given opportunities.

11 a.m.—The Food Crisis Hits Hard
Back at Margarita’s home we talk to her about her life. Because of a poor economy, there are no formal jobs in Tactic, so, like most women, Margarita supports her family selling vegetables that she grows with her husband. However, they can barely produce enough food to feed their family, let alone enough to sell. Hence, their income is extremely low—combined they earn about 50 Quetzales a day ($6.02), which they must split among thirteen people.

With limited income and limited crops, come limited diets. In the morning, children in Bempec will usually have a cup of coffee with sugar and two tortillas. At school they will receive a cup of Atol de Elote (ah-TOLL day eh-LOW-tay) a thin corn-based porridge, followed by herbs cooked in water after school. Mothers often have to send their kids to bed as early as 4 p.m. just to keep them from feeling hungry for dinner.

I look around at the lush landscape and think about how much food Margarita could grow if we could get U.S. development assistance programs to reach women like her. You wouldn’t know it in the States, but much of the developing world, including Guatemala, is experiencing an extreme food crisis.

Yet women, who produce the majority of the world’s food supply, receive scant credit going to small farmers. It strikes me that growing food in the fertile Western region and selling it to the Eastern region, where there is a famine, could be a path out of poverty for these farmers. But that can’t happen until development programs get serious about helping agricultural communities like Bempec—and women like Margarita.

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