Women’s Health & Healing in Guatemala – 2023 Trip Summary

This was the 10th,” Women’s Health and Healing” trip to Guatemala after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic. As in previous years, this Institute for Women’s Health trip was in partnership with the Highland Support Project (HSP) and the Association of Highland Women (AMA). Janett Forte and Heather Ashton co-led this year's trip, consisting of sixteen women from VCU and the surrounding community.      These participants brought a great deal of enthusiasm and personal or professional experience in the field of women’s health. This interdisciplinary and intergenerational team encompassing VCU students, faculty, and staff from various departments of social work, psychology, neurology, neuroscience, nursing, and sonography. 


The itinerary for the 8-day exchange was packed with engaging activities that allowed the team to learn about local services, practices and challenges related to maternal and child health in Guatemala. The journey included interactions with community leaders, village women, and Maya midwives. Our local hosts, the Association of Highland Women (AMA) are women with roots in the cooperative movement. Their mission is to “empower the most isolated and marginalized women in the highlands through community organization, education, resources and alliances to achieve a life with dignity and initiate sustainable development processes, with a dynamic of formation of small groups, through learning popular techniques.”

The emphasis of mutuality and the collaborative nature of this trip is evident from the first days. On Monday the team took a boat ride across Lake Atitlan to visit the village of San Juan La Laguna had a guided tour of the local ‘La Voz,’ a coffee cooperative. On this tour, the participants learned first-hand the important role that cooperatives play in the local economy, and highlighted how the choices made by U.S. consumers have the potential to drive positive change globally Stories were shared through an interactive experience connecting the environmental impacts of both chemical or sustainable practices and their effects on the citizens of the Highland region of Guatemala.

The team also had the privilege of attending a presentation from Audelino Sac Coyoy on Maya medicine. He is a Maya-K’iche’ academic from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. He describes his dual life as a Maya "Day Counter" or "Maya Priest " in his native culture and as a Professor of Political Science and Maya Studies in his Western Persona.   He also shared a traditional Maya ceremony which is a contemporary practice grounded in pre-Columbian beliefs.

To understand the healthcare challenges in the region, the team attended a presentation by the Quetzaltenango regional public health department.  They learned about the area’s limited healthcare infrastructure, which consists of only two hospitals and 133 clinics for close to a million inhabitants in an area covering over 47 square miles. Midwives play an instrumental role in supporting women in villages given homebirths account for over 90% of births in rural areas However, many of these midwives’ face limitations due to the stigma and oppression from racism.

A morning was spent at a local midwife at Isabel’s home where the team had an opportunity to gather medicinal herbs nearby and learn how they are used during pregnancy and childbirth. Additionally a local bonesetter provided a presentation on herbal and medicinal plants and shared how these are used in traditional healing remedies. 

A day was spent learning from CODECOT (Coordinadora departmental de comadronas tradicionales de Quetzatenango) a midwives association whose mission is: We are part of the millennial knowledge of our ancestors, which strengthens the ancestral and cultural teachings, which is committed to accompanying, and transmitting knowledge to families, mainly to pregnant women during the moments of pregnancy, childbirth and post- childbirth, in a supportive and humanized way, with the best therapeutic ancestral practices”

Shifting gears in the last few days the team had an opportunity to visit a thermal spa where 4 of the midwives shared hands on massage techniques used with pregnant women for breast milk stimulation and a massage to assist in relaxing the uterus to aid in delivery. Finally, after a busy week the team was rewarded with a visit to ‘Fuentes Georginas’ gorgeous springs offering thermally heated pools just outside the Zunil volcano.  Then a return to Antigua known as the best-preserved Spanish colonial city in Central America. cobblestone streets, a bustling Central Park, surrounded by four volcanoes for sightseeing and shopping at local markets.

A few comments from team members:

  • "My interactions were amazing and heartfelt."
  • "Traveling around the country was a humbling experience. I am beyond grateful to meet these amazing women who are helping their communities." 
  • "I am a changed person. I will never look at clean water, trash services, and infrastructure the same again. I am blessed by the opportunity to spend time with the Guatemalan women, and I will carry their stories and energy with me for a long time to come."
  • "Working internationally has always been my professional goal, and my awareness of privilege and power has been magnified. I am even more dedicated to supporting the cultural preservation of indigenous cultures, as well as promoting the health and wellness of women in marginalized positions."
  • "Amazing opportunity to learn in a culturally responsible way while expanding your world view in a beautiful country."

For questions or more information contact:  

Janett Forte: janett.forte@vcuhealth.org 
Heather Ashton: ashtonhr@vcu.edu

Watch this website for information on future trips!