Being Organized Strengthens Us to Face the Patriarchal System
By: Wendy Matamoros, FCAM Cross-Sector Alliances and Communications Coordinator
Dalila Vásquez, rural and indigenous leader and member of the Madre Tierra (or Mother Earth) Women’s Association (Asociación de Mujeres Madre Tierra)*, tells us how COVID-19 is impacting communities on the southern coast of Guatemala and further exposing the profound structural problems sustained by a patriarchal, colonial and racist model.
FCAM: What problems are the communities of the southern coast of Guatemala facing as a result of the pandemic?
When the health crisis emerged, we did not have the conditions to face a pandemic. The first problem that we experienced was with food. Here, people live day-to-day with what they harvest, but when we were told we had to stay in isolation and stop all activities, it had a huge impact. This is the longest and most difficult season of the year.
We are in the middle of summer, which is when basic needs are not covered because families living off of agriculture plant their harvest during the winter. This part of the year is always more complex given that there are no food stores. This is why people need to find other ways to secure food, and to generate income in order to survive. Some grow mangos or sell cashews, but by closing the borders between towns they have no way to sell the little product they have, and they have no way to stock up on the products that are necessary for their families.
In the communities – like mine, for example – women handle selling the produce. This work takes place at night, it’s when most produce is sold. Because of this crisis, all of these women (including around 45 in my community) were the first to lose their businesses, because they could not go out to sell. And the first resources that were used up were those belonging to women, because their children come to them for what they need.
Women in the communities are facing a food shortage crisis and an economic crisis that has worsened under the absence of government support. To respond to these needs, we have worked in coordination with local authorities, because even though we are the ones doing the work, community action is coordinated with the authorities. Then, you add to this other structural problems.
FCAM: What is the Madre Tierra Association doing to confront this situation?
This situation has been very difficult and complicated for the Madre Tierra Association. Even though our history of work has included disaster risk management related to socio-natural problems like drought and flooding, we had to suspend all of our regular activities to begin to work on the humanitarian response to the crisis that emerged with COVID-19. We have tried to adjust to the situation and begin to work to help respond to the population’s immediate needs, and as an organization we really have not stopped.
Initially, we coordinated with institutions with which we had worked previously in our regular operations. We also communicated with the donor organizations that we work with and one institution approved a change in activities so that we could use those resources to purchase food item packages.
We worked in coordination with another institution to focus on hygiene, not because people in communities do not know about hygiene habits but to address the lack of supply and resources. Communities began organizing Community Control Committees to track people coming in and they put prevention measures in place to avoid mass infection. This has in some way contributed to communities not yet being infected.
Given that the virus is still somewhat unknown, we began to work with the Ministry of Health at the departmental level to see how we could inform people about the way to move forward with this situation in their communities. While there was some interest at the health center to do this, they do not have the resources necessary to do community work.
We had to figure out how to create objective prevention information that would allow us to address the situation with communities, without causing panic and without causing as much fear. We also coordinated that with another organization we work with.
This is how we have contributed in our communities, because the government is absent. There are some municipal delegates here and there –but not at the community level – because municipal delegates do not have the resources to serve the communities.
While some local authorities have the will to do things, they do not have the resources, like gasoline to get them to the communities. If they do not have the basic resources to get where they need to go, then they do not have the other resources necessary to attend to people’s health needs. That was already a problem that affected communities.
FCAM: What structural problems were exacerbated by this health crisis?
This crisis exacerbates not only repression, but discrimination, racism and the patriarchy, which are serious structural problems that have not been addressed by public policies.
These are the issues that we address, because with quarantine – in addition to the fact that people do not have what they need to survive – statistics tracking violence against women have risen again.
Likewise, the absence of the government at the community level is an expression of racism, because the majority of indigenous communities and people live in rural areas.
The first thing that the government did when the pandemic began was to allocate a large sum of money – supposedly to respond to the crisis – and they had to take our large loans to do it. This money is just beginning to arrive in the communities (they are providing 3,000 quetzales, or around $390 U.S. dollars, per month for three months), but this is only available to people with electricity. So, it is not making it to all of the population.
In the communities there are many families that do not have access to land or dignified housing, and families work to sell the fruits of their labor in neighboring communities or towns. As a result of the measures taken by the government to respond to the crisis, they lost their livelihoods as they are no longer able to enter other towns.
If they do not have land, they do not have the basics needed to survive, they do not have electricity – in my community alone there are about 50 families that do not have electricity and that live in completely precarious conditions – well, these families are the ones that need help most, and they are not benefitting from that support.
Ultimately, these policies are racist and discriminatory because they do not include measures that can support the population that really needs it. Apart from that, we cannot even speak out, because we cannot meet, we cannot go out, we cannot even access to media to voice our concerns.
FCAM: At the same time, large corporations and franchises are still operating.
Of course, that is why we are saying that the measures are racist and exclusionary. Large corporations do not stop. In the communities for example, we have to deal with monoculture agriculture and we are realizing that while people cannot go to other places do to their work, they do still have to go to the large farms to work. Why? Because those farms are huge agrobusinesses that at the end of the day are backed by the government, who is taking measures, moving the pieces, so that the oppressive and exclusionary economic system keeps working.
These are the vast contradictions that exist in our countries – the large corporations, the owners of largescale monoculture agricultural businesses, they have not stopped. For them, there are no laws that punish or prohibit, there is no Public Ministry that will go after them, there is no Police force controlling them, there is no Army watching over their movements. While in the communities, the Army and the Police have been deployed to control the people that live off of what they produce, and that live off of their small businesses and the microeconomy. These are the most complex situations to confront, because this is not only about not having enough to survive, but that our ability to work and earn what we need has also been restricted.
These are the significant problems that are tied to the structural problems that have always kept us impoverished, because at the end of the day, people are kept in situations of poverty so that they can continue to be exploited, to continue taking advantage of their needs, because whoever got those millions of dollars – it was not the people.
FCAM: How are you sustaining your lives, and sustaining the struggle?
We have continued to promote agroecology so that people can secure their basic nutritional needs. That said, while this is something we have worked on with several families and they have made progress, it is not a strategy that works for everyone. Others are still thinking about production for sale, either because they do not have enough land, they do not have any land, or because they live on rented land. There are a number of factors that impede whether everyone wants to or is able to engage in the agroecology process.
With the families that are already in the process, this is an alternative that we are strengthening as a strategy to confront hunger, but we also have to be realistic. While agroecology is an alternative, you also have to take into account that drought is prevalent in our communities during the summer months. So, even though people have their soil recovery and diversification plans, the lack of water is always an important factor during this time of year.
At the national level, we are working with other organizations to insist that Congress approve Initiative 5452, the Women’s Economic Development Law (Ley de Desarrollo Económico de las Mujeres). We consider that this is the exact moment for this initiative because the government is insisting on the recovery of the national economy. If the government increases its awareness of the importance of women’s role in the family and national economy, and if we can get the votes we need, that would be one alternative.
Initiative 5452 includes three specific programs: 1) seed funding for women that already have small businesses or would like to have a small business; 2) low interest credit; 3) subsidies for women’s groups and organizations that are working together on economic activities.
The legislation initiative focuses on these three programs, but also includes coordination across institutions to address technical training, access to technological resources, and strengthening women’s capacities so that these resources that are being invested can yield the results that we aspire to, in which women generate their own income.
FCAM: What gives you the strength to continue in the struggle?
For us, we consider that the only way to face this entire system is by organizing together. That is the only way, because that is what has allowed us to take small steps, achieve small changes that over time have become important changes. I think about the communities where we work, in the beginning issues of violence were much stronger than they are now.
For us, these changes and others that we can see from the work that we are doing are what gives us strength to keep insisting on transformation of the structural problems in our country. While we are conscious that unfortunately those that govern us have all of the characteristics of these structural problems – such as the patriarchy, machismo, fundamentalism and racism – we know that if we stay strong, we stay organized, and we maintain the strength to keep insisting on change, we can achieve it.
*About the Madre Tierra Association:
Madre Tierra is an association of women whose members began to organize as refugees in Mexico at the beginning of the 1990s for their return to Guatemala, free and organized to continue fighting for women’s access to land ownership. Their work focuses on defense of food sovereignty – through agroecology – and the creation of economic alternatives for women, promotion of educational programs on women’s rights, and national level advocacy for the approval of the Women’s Economic Development Law.