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Indigenous women reach out for democracy

It is Wednesday morning, and an unusual time for a celebration. Yet marimba music is filling the streets of Xepatuj, in Guatemala's south central department of Solola.

Inside one adobe house a visitor finds an even stranger scene. A group of indigenous women, their small children in tow, have taken a break from their never ending domestic duties to do something completely foreign to their culture: on their own—without their menfolk—they are speaking out about their problems to a group of strangers.

In this and other highland villages, the men run the community, just like the husband runs the home. Even just a year ago, it would have been unheard of for women to stand up and demand to be counted.

These women are members of a committee created as part of an IDB-financed program to foster the role of women in democracy by teaching them about their rights and civic duties. The program is part of a series of Bank initiatives in Guatemala to help carry out the provisions of the 1996 peace accords that ended 36 years of civil war. Now in its second year, the program has confirmed how much must be done in the country's rural regions to achieve genuine community participation, reduce discrimination and attend to the needs of indigenous populations.

But at the same time, progress has been made. "To tell the truth, it is hard to believe we have reached this point," says Julia Mendoza, program field technician. "Not so long ago, these women were completely unused to expressing themselves. Moreover, most are illiterate and don't speak Spanish, yet another obstacle they face as indigenous women."

The program's first test came with an election in November 1999. "That was a big one," recalls Mendoza.. "We had to rush to get the women registered to vote. We also had to be creative. Many didn't even have a birth certificate, which meant they were not citizens. Thus, we had to find witnesses to testify that they existed! Now, with the election over, we can continue citizen and voter registration, which is one of the most important parts of the program.

Overcoming resistance to change. The music ended, and the members of the committee gathered around to talk. According to one elderly woman, a major problem they have encountered is resistance from husbands and the community as a whole.

"Our husbands didn't want us to go to the meetings," she said, "because we would be talking about organizing." In fact, the act of organizing is a very serious issue in an area were political meetings were a cause for disappearances during the war. To counteract this fear, the women invited their husbands to attend meetings to see for themselves.

Eventually, said the women, the husbands recognized the purpose and value of the meetings, and many have become strong supporters.

Resistance from the community was quite a different matter. Here, the criticism mostly came from other women. Nonparticipants would say of a committee member, "she probably has nothing to do." In other cases, censure would be directed at the husbands of participating women. Gradually, some of these critics began to attend meetings. Some even joined the program.

Time and again, the women told similar stories of initial resistance followed by understanding and support. "Now that these difficulties are over, we can concentrate on other issues affecting us," said one of the members.

After being served traditional Guatemalan sweet bread and coffee, the visitor headed to the village of San Martín Jilotepeque, in the heart of the Chimaltenango department.

Solidarity yields concrete results. In San Martín, a bigger party was in progress on a street already crowded by market day shoppers.

The people had a good reason to celebrate: they were unveiling a mural that celebrated the promising new role of the community's women. Iliana Melendreras, coordinator of the program, expressed satisfaction over the progress made so far. Although the committee's main objectives are to promote civic duties and rights, other projects are also on the agenda.

For example, the nearby village of El Molino is working to get the municipality to build a town hall. "We do not have a place big enough to hold our meetings and discuss our needs as a community," says Delfina Velasquez, president of that village's committee. "Until now we have to ask for permission to use the public school," she says. "But now we're better organized, and we can ask the municipality to build a place specifically for meetings.

"This program has taught us we can be just as organized as the men," she said.

Part of peace program. The program, which is financed by the IDB-administered Norwegian Fund, covers eight predominantly indigenous municipalities in the country's so-called Zonapaz or Peace Zone. In addition, the program is training 40 women in leadership skills and encouraging them to become decision makers at the local level.

"We support new and established women leaders in the exercise of political power in public, private and civil society organizations," explains Delia Castillo, program director. "It's about communicating to them that as women, as 50 percent of the population, they posses the same rights as men. It is also about showing them that through democracy, including exercising the vote and participating in municipal government, they can solve some of their problems." Finally, says Castillo, they will also learn how they can join with the men in building peace together, after the long years of civil conflict that plagued the region.

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