Rhetoric To Reality
issue 183 - May 1988
Rhetoric to reality
Women around the world were inspired by the 1985 conference
in Nairobi that capped the UN's International Women's Decade. But women's
groups in the Third World are having to work hard to turn high-minded
resolutions into practical gains. From Maputo to Madras women
are insisting on defining development for themselves.
On their own two feet
Nearly a decade ago, a group of middle-class Indian women campaigning in the slums of Madras became disillusioned with electoral politics. Their door-to-door canvassing seemed light years away from the real problems of poor women. Wives were facing the violence of their husbands who felt free to beat and burn them. In the marketplaces, policemen were extorting women street vendors to pay illegal 'fines'. Moneylenders put women in constant debt, charging exorbitant interest rates up to 100 per cent. Women needed an organization which would protect them from abuses, not just register them to vote.
Jaya Arunachalam, a former official of the ruling Congress party, realized women could never hope for equal status in Indian society until they gained economic independence. In 1978 she founded the Working Women's Forum. Originally the group concentrated on helping women obtain credit, making loans to small groups of working women. However it soon became evident that credit alone was not enough to change women's lives. Tiny increases in income were offset by the continuous birth of new children and women rarely had a say in where their hard-earned money was spent. So the Forum began to explore other areas ranging from health care and family planning to legal assistance. But the main emphasis was on raising women's self-esteem and empowering them to make changes in their lives.
At first Forum organizers found women were reluctant to discuss their personal problems in public. In traditional Indian households, girls are raised to believe they should not speak out or make themselves noticed. Eventually, after many group meetings, shyness gives way and women begin to talk about their most private concerns.
Kala, for example, recalls how her group helped her overcome a paralyzing fear of her husband. 'My husband drinks day and night,' says Kala. 'Once in his drunken stupor, he poured kerosene over me and tried to burn me. I was in the hospital for six months, yet neither my husband nor my mother-in-law cared for me. I would have killed myself, but the women in my group looked after me as a sister. I learned that I wasn't alone and I found the strength to stand up for myself.'
The women not only learn to speak out and console each other, they also begin to be active in their communities. Veni was once too scared and ashamed to look her husband in the eye. But through her group meetings she learned to speak her mind and even challenge her husband when he came home drunk or when she disagreed with him. Now she is a feisty community leader.
'Women like us have begun so take interest in the problems of the area. When the gutters overflow into the streets, we don't expect men will go and call the municipal authorities. Instead, we go and bring the city truck to drain out the gutter. Ten years ago, I would not have had the courage to even go to the municipal office.
My loan has meant I've been able to get a new roof and electricity for my house and a few jewels for my daughter. But these are nothing compared to seeing the courage of the ten other women in the group meetings and the way they have been able to stand independently on their feet.'
They're no longer laughing
The once lush countryside of Mozambique, scorched by drought and plagued by famine, has been brought to near collapse by the war waged by South African-backed rebels. But surrounding the capital city of Maputo, there is a sparking reminder that this country is rich in resources - and one of them is its women.
There are nearly 200 small agricultural co-ops in the Green Zones that surround Maputo. These co-ops, which grow fresh vegetables and grains for sale in the capital, are open to both sexes. But the vast majority of members - almost 90 per cent - are women. The Green Zones have the proud distinction of keeping Maputo fed during a time of extreme shortage and vicious attacks on the country's main food-producing farms.
'Men initially belittled our cooperatives,' claims Green Zones President Celina Cosa. 'They thought women were only good for raising children and taking care of the house. Now that we have our own marketing system, repair shops and training centres, the men are no longer laughing.'
'They have certainly changed their tune,' says Celina with pride. 'Men now see women as carpenters and bricklayers, and they watch as we meet with foreign delegations and government officials. I'm not saying we've managed to solve all our problems - far from it. Bus we've managed to prove that we're at least as capable as men.
Some co-ops have been successful enough to begin paying their members monthly wages and that's attracted more men to join. So far there's been no clash. The women have already set up internal structures for electing officers as the local, regional and national levels and they are confident men will not be able so usurp the leadership positions.
Says Kari Alvin, a Norwegian agronomist working with the Green Zones: 'These are remarkable women. The leadership qualities they have gained in the Green Zones now extend beyond their co-op work. Some women have become leaders in their neighbourhood committees; there are even co-op members who have been elected to the national assembly. That is very special in Mozambique and very special in all of Africa.'
Turning the tables
The Nicaraguan Government's fight against the US-backed Contras has pushed women into the forefront of national development. As men leave the fields for the army, women have become a major force in agriculture. Officials estimate women make up half Nicaragua's cotton and coffee pickers and more than half the manual work force in tobacco.
As a result, the Rural Workers Association (ATC), a traditional preserve of male farmworkers, has increasingly turned to women's concerns. Swelling the ranks of the ATC, women have directed the organization to a whole new list of priorities and the union is beginning so take new shape.
One of the most critical problems the women face is the lack of child care. 'There are only so many hours in the day,' says farmworker Aurora Gonzales. 'I get up as 4:30 each morning so prepare the day's meals. I try to get my neighbour to take the children for the day, but sometimes they have to come and work alongside me. I work all day and then get home in time to wash the children and put them to bed. Then I can begin the regular chores around the house. When am I supposed to sleep?'
The ATC responded by forming 30 new child care centres, most of them on state coffee farms. Women have also pressed for more cafeterias serving breakfast and lunch at the workplace. In 1987, one state-run coffee plantation agreed to build eight cafeterias to provide lunch and breakfast to the workers. Maria Cruz, a single mother with five children, says the cafeterias have freed several hours in her busy day. 'I used to prepare a whole day of meals for all six of us before leaving for work. Now I have time in the morning to sleep a little later and even to look at the books which they gave us for our literacy class.'
Women in the union also realized the only way to ensure a constant concern for women's issues within ATC was to have more women in leadership positions. As the Oscar Turcios state farm for example, only about 15 per cent of the union local leaders were women, while women made up over 40 per cent of the labour force. Women fought hard to increase their hold of leadership posts, and their gains were impressive. By 1986 more than half she state farm's 65 union leaders were women, triple the number in 1984.
Their gains have been significant, but women in Nicaragua still worry that their accomplishments may be short-lived. When the war is over and men return to the fields, will women be sent back to mind the hearth? Or will the inroads women have made into the workforce be too strong to reverse?
Research by Nandini Azad, Gary Rucherwarger and Kevin Danaher.