The NI Interview
issue 318 - November 1999
Stephanie Boyd visits a grassroots leader of
Ecuador's community women's movement.
It is difficult to believe that Margarita Males Guallosamín was once a battered wife, unable to leave the house without her husband's permission, trapped by her economic dependence on him. A video on domestic violence in Ecuador shows Margarita some years ago telling her story at a women's counselling session, face awash with tears, eyes puffy and voice uncertain. But the woman before me is nearly unrecognizable from the person on video - confident, energetic and full of humorous stories. The change, she says, came about when she started attending meetings of a local women's group, the Quito sector of the National Women's Movement of Popular Neighborhoods (in Spanish this phrase is used to describe poor urban communities).
Now Margarita is National Co-ordinator of the organization and a leading feminist in Ecuador's grassroots women's movement. With chapters in 8 of the country's 20 provinces, the movement brings together women from a variety of backgrounds - Afro-Ecuadorians, indigenous women, sex workers and other low-income urban women. Together they push for women's political participation on a community and national level, as well as women's and children's rights.
At first, Margarita says, she had to ask her husband's permission to attend the meetings, but 'little by little', with the support of the other women and a new-found self-esteem, she managed to change his attitude - and also his behavior. Now she says her home life is no longer abusive. And, breaking into a wide grin, she adds: 'I no longer ask to attend meetings; I just go.'
Margarita explains that one of the movement's biggest achievements is the sense of friendship and solidarity created amongst the women. In tough times they help each other out, emotionally and often economically, and share valuable information about legal and political rights. 'Many of our laws protecting women's rights are good; the problem is educating women about those rights,' she explains. 'We educate our daughters that women aren't just for the house and men for the street.'
Ecuador's mainstream women's movement has for the most part been unable or unwilling to reach out to women from marginalized communities. But Margarita has found an ally in Clara Merino, who works with the Corporation to Promote Women (CPM). Over the years, CPM has provided invaluable economic support and access to the often inhospitable world of international donor organizations.
Clara believes local communities are the most important group to work with in terms of women's rights because they have been the most ignored. The statistics alone support her claim: 50 per cent of all Ecuador's urban households are below the poverty line with 19 per cent in extreme poverty. Unemployment amongst Quito's poor is rampant and the majority of women living in 'popular neighborhoods' scratch out an existence through the informal sector, tending market stalls or as street-sellers of anything from gum to CDs.
'Many of our laws protecting
women's rights are good, the
problem is educating women
about those rights'
And the country's economy is getting worse. President Jamil Mahuad's economic policies have given rise to a massive devaluation of the sucre, the local currency, precipitating a major banking crisis and hyperinflation. Prices for basic commodities like foodstuffs and gasoline rise overnight and unemployment has shot up from 9.0 to 11.5 per cent. Mahuad then delivered another blow by increasing sales taxes from 10 to 15 per cent and eliminating all subsidies on electricity and telecommunications. Adding to this burden, Ecuadorians are now forced to pay their own medical and hospital bills due to the privatization of previously state-run healthcare. With government support shrinking and prices rising, the movement's work is vital.
To help provide support for working mothers, the movement runs two daycare centers in Quito's lower-income neighborhoods. Together they house about 150 children. Margarita points out the need is always greater than the space available. She leads me to the kitchen of the center in her neighborhood to show that the children receive a balanced meal each day - fruit, soup, beans, rice and salad, and babies are weighed regularly to monitor their weight. Instructors are trained in alternative education and use a variety of songs, games and art-work to teach the basic skills as well as socialization and team work.
A group of five-year-olds proudly display their numbers projects, the number '10' outlined with large needles and wool. Nearby a serious-looking girl in a paint-spattered smock seems to be making a picture of her family, but when I ask her what she's painting she frowns at me and replies: 'I'm working, NOT painting.'
Outside, children play on swings or in a small wooden house, and roll tires around the fenced-in playground. Margarita points out that about half of the children are from indigenous migrant families who come to Quito from the surrounding mountains looking for work. Putting these children to play and learn with Afro-Ecuadorian and other mixed-race kids from an early age teaches them to respect diversity, she says. In the future, the women hope to expand the day-care centers with funds from a bakery project. Margarita is more than happy to show me the bakery, and help me taste the wares - sweet bread, egg rolls, whole wheat and dinner rolls. She insists that I sample each kind. The warm little shop and café is also staffed by women from the movement who train each new member in the technique of baking bread.
As we eat the hot, fresh bread Margarita admits that at first it was difficult for the movement to make inroads in the strongly machista culture. But now women's representatives attend local community meetings and have a say in making policy alongside the men. 'And now the same women who were against us in the beginning bring their children to the daycare,' she laughs, eyes twinkling.
Stephanie Boyd is an editor at Latinamerica Press in Lima, Peru.