New Internationalist

You Can’t Cook Excuses

Issue 164

new internationalist
issue 164 - October 1986

You can't cook excuses
Half of Bolivia's children are malnourished. Who copes with the daily
reality of a hungry child when neither husband nor government take
seriously a child's right to food? Susanna Rance reports on the
Bolivian mothers who shoulder the responsibility.

I've got eight mouths to feed. With me, that makes nine,' says 59-year-old grandmother Hilda Martinez. Hilda, who was widowed thirteen years ago, lives in a hillside shanty town in La Paz, Bolivia But long before her husband died she had taken on the role of breadwinner for him, their children and their grandchildren. Her case is not unusual: one third of the world's families are supported economically by women. In low-income households in the Third World the proportion rises to over 50 per cent.

Inside the house, Hilda's ten-year-old grandson is copying a poem from his school textbook. Its lyrical phrases sing the praises of all mothers: their words are like 'celestial music'; their caresses embody 'the infinite grandeur of the universe'. And while the mother in the book stretches out her arms to her adoring children, another lesson shows the father, tired after his day's work, as 'sovereign' of the home, the figure of 'firm and manly perseverance'.

Such images of the Madonna-like woman at home are strangely inappropriate in Bolivia where a higher proportion of women are alone and working to support their families than in any other Latin American country.

Women take on this kind of responsibility for many reasons. Some are the wives of migrant workers, left for months at a time in charge of small farms while their husbands seek paid work. Others are widows, single mothers, divorced or separated, or abandoned by the fathers of their children. But an increasing number of urban women become wage or keeps the greater part of his pay to himself, the women fill the gap, resorting to an infinite number of strategies to keep their children fed, clothed and educated.

'I'll turn my hand to anything. What haven't I done!' reminisces Hilda. 'I've washed clothes, ironed, run errands, cooked food to sell on the street . . .' Now she travels weekly to the Peruvian border to bring back detergent, clothes and foodstuffs to sell in local markets. 'I leave the house at six in the morning to set up my stall. At nine or ten I come. Everything you see here comes from my own work, not my husband's.'

Female-headed households and low incomes go hand in hand. Women are hindered from the better-paid jobs available to men by the lack of domestic help, as well as having no training or capital. 'I've never had my own capital to work with, 'says Doña Hilda. 'I borrow money here and there and pay interest on the loans.' Who looks after the baby while the mother works? Lucilla Mejía, mother, farmer and leader of the national Peasant Women's Federation, puts it succinctly: 'Child care? I use my own back - that's my nursery.'

As earnings drop, the proportion spent on food becomes progressively higher. 'Women always worry about how they are going to fill their children's stomachs each day,' says another working mother, Maria Aguilera. 'Well, that's the mother's main function, isn't it?' Although she is a qualified accountant, she now operates a knitting machine at home so she can care for her three small children.

As these women's economic situation worsens, so does their families' diet and health. In Bolivia, 70 per cent of pregnant women are anaemic; and the deficiency in their diets has inevitable repercussions on the health of their unborn children. Half of Bolivia's children show some degree of malnutrition and 200 per thousand die before the age of five, mostly from preventable illnesses.

But contrary to the belief that the poor eat badly because they 'don't know how' to balance their diets, surveys done in Bolivian shanty towns and rural areas show that women are well aware of the value of the foods that they can't afford to consume. 'unimportant' by the mothers, who repeatedly mention (unaffordable) meat, milk, eggs and cheese as the most nutritious foods.

Obtaining and preparing food is a daily struggle for most Third World mothers. Cooking fuel is a problem: most families in the countryside have the arduous daily task of collecting firewood. Poorer families in the cities queue in the early morning for a limited supply of kerosene. Those who can afford gas have to lug empty cylinders to the nearest point at which the delivery truck may, or may not, pass by that morning - a wait of up to three hours.

Basic foodstuffs may disappear from view for weeks on end depending on current economic policy. In Bolivia, speculation in food has become a way of life for the growing ranks of the unemployed, and each link in the chain of food distribution ups the price a little more. Most of the buyers and sellers are women, battling with each other from the same motivation: to get a better meal on the table for their own children that day.

A lot of this food comes from abroad - even though Bolivia could produce much more for herself. Bolivia continues to import products like wheat, milk powder and oats which the country could provide at a lower cost if the right technical and financial aid were given to the large farming population. It has been estimated that the land could support seven times the present population of six million Bolivians. But the policy of Victor Paz Estenssoro's right-wing government is to remove all controls on food imports in order to promote a 'free market' - even though this has a fatal effect on national production.

And there are other international factors which have a devastating impact on the Bolivian housewife's daily struggle for food. The drastic fall in world mineral prices has left the country bankrupt, and tin mining - once the backbone of the economy - is no longer a going concern. Mining families depend for food supplies on provisions from the company stores, whose shelves are now empty. 'All we are getting are vouchers and we can't cook those for lunch, can we?' said Aurora de Lora, leader of a Housewives' Committee, at a recent national meeting of women from the mining districts.

What can be done? In 1982, urban women from the shanty towns began to organise. They went on hunger strike to demand popular stores run by housewives in each city zone, and pressured the trades unions to campaign not just for higher salaries but for control of food prices and supplies. They were accused of being political, and retorted: 'Yes, we are political - ours are the politics of the empty saucepan.

During the previous centre-left government of Hernán Siles Zuazo, these committees were able to unite women from poor sectors in pressuring for change. Now, however, with an unsympathetic regime in power, hopes have fallen and the growing tendency is for low-income families to seek individual solutions to their problems.

'What can we do? Well, just go on working,' said a market seller with four children, who does not belong to any organisation. Although she is the sole supporter of her family - her husband is an unemployed construction worker - she states 'housewife' as her main occupation and continues to view her husband as 'head of the household'.

In the 1976 Census, 45 per cent of urban women in Bolivia and 67 per cent of those living in rural areas described themselves as 'housewives', although surveys paying more detailed attention to women's activities reveal a different reality. 'You can't just sit and watch your children go hungry,' says Hilda Martinez. '"There's no work, there's no work," that's all my husband used to say. But I've always managed to find something.'

If those in power - whether at the head of the nation or the head of the household - are serious about a child's right to food, they need to act on behalf of women. For it is women who shoulder all the responsibilities for children, providing not only love - as the stereotypes suggest - but also money. It is they who try to make up for the failures of national governments and international financiers. Others may bewail the tragedy of hungry children. It seems that only mothers, faced daily with an empty saucepan and a hungry child, do something about it.

Susanna Rance works at CEDOIN, an information and documentation centre in La Paz, Bolivia.

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