iKnow Politics: I would like to start by asking you about your political career. When did it start? What motivated you? What opportunities or obstacles did you face because of your gender?
I've never been asked this question in such detail. I am a rural woman born in the province of Chimborazo, in Ecuador, and I’ve lived in the province of Pastaza for nearly 30 years. I was almost always entirely dedicated to the house and the family, until we had financial difficulties and so I started to move a little further out of the house in order to fight for the rights of peasants, of the rural community and for women’s rights. It was a very long struggle, from 1990 to 1996. In 1990 I founded the Women's Association of Fátima, which is the rural parish where I live, in the province of Pastaza.
With this association we managed the first Training School for Rural Women Leaders of the Amazon, in which, between 1996 and 1997, 200 women from two provinces participated: 150 from Pastaza and 50 from Morona Santiago. The subjects ranged from self-esteem, situation analysis and leadership to political participation, all of which were unknown to women of the Amazon, let alone rural women.
In December 1995, my province was visited by the Political Coordinator of Ecuadorian Women, which had just been constituted on July 7th of that year. Right after that, I was invited to the First Conference of Ecuadorian Women, held in Quito on February 8th and 9th, 1996. And I, a rural woman, went to this conference accompanied by two girls from my province, who suggested that I run for the election of the first board of the Political Coordinator’s Office of Ecuadorian Women. And that's when, curiously, I won with the most votes, even though I was competing against women who were economists, sociologists, and specialists in rural development.
Perhaps what sparked the interest of these thousands of women from all over the country, was that I said that I hoped that, at least in scenarios where women are present, there will be opportunities for rural and Amazon women, who belong to totally marginalized and neglected sectors. When I said that those in power have turned their backs on the rural and Amazon areas, women began to hug me and tell me: "We will support you, we will support you!" And so when the choice was made, I received the highest number of votes. So I left the rural parish to become a national leader of the Political Coordinator’s Office of Ecuadorian Women.
In 1996, I was invited to join the group representing Ecuador in the First Meeting for Caribbean Latin American Rural Women. I believe that the 1990s marked my life, through the struggle for the rural community and rural women.
But something curious about what led me to politics is that it was precisely my hatred for the word politics. I hated it because at the time of the war with Peru, we, the peasants, lived under terrible persecution. Inflation had risen to 130%, and it was our politicians that had bankrupted us. However, in the Political Coordinator’s Office I was made to understand that politics isn’t bad, but rather it was politicians’ management of matters and their actions that were hurting the people. So, with this, the way I saw things began to change and later on I started to get involved.
In 2000, the decentralized autonomous parish governments were born. The 1998 Constitution had recognized them as part of the government. There were 785 parishes and I was elected to the parish council with the highest votes in my area. As such, I became president of this local mini-government that was born, autonomous and penniless, of course, with no laws or regulations. We had to fight very hard and work hard for 21 months to build the institutions of the parish councils from scratch. And even though this entity was created by the Constitution and the law, with no money, every day I became thirstier and hungrier for action, to be able to do something for the rural sector and its women.
Right after that, I founded the Association of Rural Councils of Pastaza, with the 17 rural parishes of the province. I was one of five people that fought at national level to pass the laws and regulations and get the ministerial agreements to lay down the foundations of what are today the parish governments.
For me, the period between 1990 and 2005 was the best education. Without taking away merits from anyone, I had to learn to develop myself within this field. I also learned to develop myself by moving from the private to the public sector, and understanding that a cent of public sector money - and it really was a cent sometimes - had to be handled with much more awareness and responsibility, and we had to be transparent about it because it was an issue of legality, just as required by the norms and regulations in every country.
At the end of the structuring of the parish councils, in June 2005, I handed over my mandate and proposed a participatory horizontal organization in the National Council of Rural Parish Councils of Ecuador (CONAJUPARE), now called CONAGOPARE. The councils, of the 785 parishes we started with, are now more than 800. Each province provided a member to serve on the National Board and the Executive Secretariat, and it was from that Executive Secretariat that we had the highest level of parish representation. So, a completely different and horizontal organization was established and I am pleased to have left this foundation because it allows rural people to learn to discuss, analyze, propose and deliberate. Until 2000, we, as rural people, considered ourselves as spectators and not as political actors.
iKnow Politics: In your opinion, what are the three principal challenges that rural women have to face to get access to politics and how to overcome them?
Since 2005, when I founded the Women's Association of Rural Parish Councils, we have worked with training schools with a goal to redress the years of exclusion in which we, rural women, had no voice. So I think the first step is to fight for public policies that include plans and programmes for the training of women who have not been able to go to schools or university - I've had to get my training along the way; if I have time, I will tell you about it. I think that public policy must ensure that we not only invest in cement and infrastructure, but also invest in human capital from the grassroots level.
A trained and educated community will produce women with knowledge potential, who can then be much more determined to improve the quality of life not only for themselves but for their families, their communities and society in general. If you haven’t completed high school, you have to find training schools that enable women to acquire new tools: individual and group capacities that allow you to get organized and become more effective. Another thing to be achieved with these trainings is for women to let go of their fear and become involved in the decision-making process. If we, women, begin to voice our opinions, the status quo is bound to change.
Hopefully leaders, both men and women, of Latin American countries, and I say this respectfully, will have the strength of conviction that we must invest in human capital, and especially in women as they are the foundation of the family. And view this as an important investment rather than a burden. I think that when the leaders begin to see and understand this, many things will change and educated women can become even more effective contributors to the overall development. But I think this is going to take a long time.
Training classrooms were full of women of different ages and regardless of the color of their skin. And that is another matter; we should start creating integrated, not segregated, spaces to share the different realities and different forms of discrimination that we have faced. We need this because there are common elements that are common to women who did not have the means to go to school or university, because in our community only men decide and women are to be solely concerned with family affairs and community work. When this segregation ends there will finally be space for a true democracy, much more balanced and fair.
iKnow Politics: Regarding what you’ve been saying, there are many studies that show that women are effectively fighting to access the sphere of politics but that once there – if they hold an electoral office – they don’t try to get re-elected. Meaning, it seems that women that access a political office, don’t stay in politics. What is your experience in this matter?
First, I think that nothing comes easily. Everything was a product of great struggle. We have been fighting, throughout history, to build spaces for the participation of women. In the Ecuadorian Constitution of 1998, for the first time ever, the word woman is mentioned because up until then it was all about the Ecuadorian man as a citizen and there was no mention of the word woman. It referred to the political participation of women but that was not put into practice. We had to fight for it and in 2000 we finally achieved the Quota Act, and with this law we are beginning to reach 30% women’s participation and it will gradually grow until we 50%. But then what did the men politicians do? For instance, if a council had 15 spaces, they would assign men to the top 10 posts and give the remaining 5 posts to women. This has been yet another reality against which we have had to struggle.
It may be that women do not seek to be re-elected because of a system/culture that has been dominant over history. According to the Constitution of 2008, we now have equality, and because of that there have been 35% women participation in Montecristi [headquarters of the Constituent Assembly of Ecuador] to participate in the creation of the current Constitution. While the Constitution requires that all lists be gender balanced, this isn’t the case for many lists. Because, for example, in the rural parish councils, where you chose 5 members and 5 alternates, what ends up happening is that in 98% of cases the lists are headed by men. So you have a composition of: man, woman, man, woman, man; they almost always top the list which means that men are present in stronger numbers.
Some women, who have been able to lead their lists, have failed to reach the municipalities, including posts of mayors, councilors or even the parish councils. But the pressure is so strong inside the government, that we have seen our women colleagues crying, saying, "I can’t stand it, can’t take it anymore." Why? Because women who have been victims of physical, psychological or domestic violence are now victims of political violence. I will not lie and I guess it must have been published, but I think three months ago a Bolivian councilor was murdered after she had been kicked, cornered and chased after, until they finally killed her.
Many, many women have been victims of abuse from their family, their partners or the group which they happen to govern. So this scares women, who, historically, have not been accustomed to making decisions or to being in power. Sadly, we feel tied down to the historical roots of being born to serve in the house. Hence, we have to keep working to empower women, so that they don’t feel alone and know that there are civil society groups that support them. Women, from organizations, must work to empower women that want to work in the government space; those who are in civil society and NGOs have to support women involved in the decision-making process.
And women who are in power shouldn’t forget that they did not get there by themselves and that there was a long struggle to build a road, a stairway, a story, that allowed them to reach their positions today. Because, often women involved in politics do absolutely nothing for the cause women’s empowerment. It cannot be said that every woman represents women because there are women who in order not to feel threatened, abused or neglected opt to join the mainstream and don’t commit to the struggle for mainstreaming women in the political process. Hence, there are a number of situations to be further analyzed, but I think that in the parish councils of the parish governments, or governments in general, the lower the social strata of the woman, the more complicated her life will be.
My journey to the parish council was average in length. Someone once told me, "But you, with your profile, why do you bother?" I would say that this work brought dignity to the parish councils and demonstrated the autonomy of the parish councils, with or without money. However, this took a lot of personal effort. For nearly 21 months, I had to govern from the hallway in my house, and I have a very modest house. And then, through friendships and strategic partnerships that I had created along the way, I started looking for projects to present in my rural parish.
Efforts for the sustainability of the process of mainstreaming women in politics have not been sufficient. There is a need to focus first on the minds of women, and create awareness among women that there is a need to fight, to consolidate and strengthen the opportunities we have and create new ones; that this is why we take risks, even to the point of being killed at the hands of those that believe that powers is rightfully theirs alone.
iKnow Politics: What partnerships have played a role in your political career? Were they important? I ask this question as iKNOW Politics is a network of networks that aims to strengthen alliances between women in politics. Moreover, despite the difficulties that arise in rural areas, have you been able to use new information and communication technologies (ICTs), particularly the internet?
First, I believe that strategic partnerships are key. Obviously, you have to know who to ally yourself with and who is committed to the cause of rural women, without impositions, but rather out of respect for their culture, their customs and their traditions. I think we need to act wisely to build women’s human capital. I think, luckily, so far I haven’t been wrong. I've had to count on valuable strategic alliances in order to do what I had to do. However, I am not fully satisfied; I think a lot still needs to be done. I have been able to fight for peasants, women and particularly rural women. This has left me very satisfied, but sometimes I feel impotent because I lack the power to help women in rural areas.
Speaking of rural women and ICTs, I want to mention the Third Meeting of Rural Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Ecuador from 5 to 9 March 2012, in which I participated as coordinator. The First Meeting of Rural Women took place in Fortaleza, Brazil, in 1996, the second in Tlaxcala, Mexico, in 2005, and now Ecuador was chosen as the venue. At this meeting, regarding ICTs, the women – so as not to speak on a personal level - concluded that there are noticeable gaps, lack of knowledge and lack of access in rural areas. Why? Because total or partial illiteracy is concentrated in the rural areas of our Latin American countries.
Some of the women said, if there is internet but no electricity, what happens? And assuming we have internet and electricity, but no access to a computer? And if we have all three -electricity, internet and a computer - but we don’t have the necessary knowledge, what happens? How can we access knowledge if many of us are illiterate? Hence, for that very reason, there is a lot of work to be done in rural areas in order to equip women with opportunities and with knowledge that will allow us to lose our fear to act.
And on this issue, I can speak of myself. During my childhood, when I was 10, 12 years old - now I’m 63 years old - it was not mandatory, in Ecuador, for rural girls to complete primary school. I had to finish the last two years of primary school - fifth and sixth grade– after I was 20 years old, after having run away from home at age 14 to avoid being forced to marry someone I didn’t want. Before that, I had to go to work and support the family because I was the eldest of nine children. And later, just after marriage, at the age of 35, I began my high school training, in order to be able to say that I graduated from high school. I wanted my children to be and have what I could not because the scholarships available for educating our sons and daughters have been in the hands of the government leaders and have never been given to the lower strata in society. Hence, we’ve had to struggle greatly so that our children have better opportunities.
In 2003, in order to carry on with my education, I enrolled to an undergraduate program. And, around 2006, I had began to lose my fear of technology and I had to buy a computer to start preparing my graduation thesis. I would write for, perhaps, one hour a day while also attending classes and tutoring sessions in order to get my degree.
The hands of rural people are much thicker than the hands of the city dwellers, because we work with the tools of the field, because we handle a machete, a hoe and the tools to care for animals. We have much clumsier hands and lack the agility that the women or the people of the city may have. Those are things that mark us; we do not live the same reality, no.
So, because of this, I'm now convinced that we must defend what is ours. We have to advocate that those in power, men and women, consider development opportunities in rural areas, not as an expense but as the best investment. International agencies also need to continue to provide opportunities for rural women as a means of compensation for years of exclusion, so that we may continue to live here, in dignity and so that we can motivate our sons and daughters to stay in the rural areas, but with much more favorable conditions, where we can access information and the media.
I, myself, got internet at home just a year ago. In order to continue my studies, through e-learning after graduation, I had to go out and rent a computer in an internet café in town. And when they scheduled classes at 7 in the morning, nobody would open the internet café at that time; or when I had to submit assignments at 11:30 at night no one would rent me a computer at this time either. So sometimes I had to rely on friends who had homes in the city to let me access the internet; they were essential allies that allowed me to meet this challenge in my studies. I'm completely convinced that only knowledge makes us free and only by learning things can we support others. As nobody does anything for us, I had to understand that I had to build myself first, value myself, love myself and strengthen myself; not out of selfishness, but as a tool to help women.
In Ecuador, we have conducted training activities - also with the support from the Institute for Communication and Development (ICD) of Holland, which works hard on the issue of ICT - where we have led women onwards to universities – for example, the Salesian University, one of our strategic partners - and we sat them down in front of a computer. At first they began to panic, but later on they would say "Now we cannot detach ourselves from the computer, now we want learn, we have our own wings to fly."
Hence, it’s just a matter of generating these types of opportunities. Women start to feel much more encouraged when they discover they have so many capabilities and potential. They even go home to encourage and motivate their daughters, to help them with their homework and to accompany them in the things they do. I believe that international cooperation, NGOs, agencies and governments, must recognize that planting a seed in rural women, as I say, is planting in fertile ground. Because it’s not that we do not have brains, it’s opportunities that we need but lack.
iKnow Politics: To finish this interesting interview, what would you say to those young women in rural areas who are attracted by politics and want to make a change, but think that it's a very difficult world and find it impossible to imagine being effective actors in it?
Young women have great advantages. They have their lives ahead of them. They have better conditions: Now there are many different ways to educate ourselves, many possibilities for schools, universities. They have to be invincible, they have to hold on to their lives and not let anyone take it from them because their lives are their own, their bodies their own, their talent their own, their decisions are theirs and they must be willing to hold their own ground against all odds.
It doesn’t matter if we hit against the walls, doesn’t matter if we skin our hands or feet, figuratively. You have to endure all this in order to become real protagonists, to become relevant actors in our communities. We must have our own voices, to build from our experiences that which we want to incorporate in public policy and understand that, really, nothing is impossible. For me, nothing is impossible. Will is power, and if I want to, I can. And they should not leave for tomorrow what they can do now, because that will allow them to move forward. We do not know if we will be alive tomorrow, but what we do now is important.