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A program empowers women—and is powered by them

By Peter Bate

According to the women of Mazituaya, before they enrolled in Oportunidades, they rarely left their homes in this tiny rural community in the mountains of Veracruz. “All we did was grind corn all day long,” says Dionisia García, mother of five. “Now we attend talks where we learn that women also have rights.”

García and her neighbors walked an hour over rugged terrain to get to Tlicalco, another mountain hamlet. Oportunidades beneficiaries gather there to pick up the bimonthly cash assistance the Mexican government provides indigent families to help them improve their health and nutrition as well as to keep their children in school.

Under the program’s rules, the money goes to the women, not the men. This represented a radical change for patriarchic societies in rural Mexico. When Oportunidades started in 1997 as PROGRESA, husbands used to escort their wives to meetings. While the men did not intervene directly in the program’s periodic lectures, they usually stood within earshot. Oportunidades field agents tell anecdotes of how the women had to win over husbands who harbored suspicions about the program.

“I’d explain how their wives would make money just by attending a few talks and learning things that would improve their living standards,” says Oportunidades coordinator Humberto Vázquez. “In many cases the women would receive more money than their husbands made working all day in the fields.”

Things did not always go smoothly. One woman from Mazituaya recalls how a neighbor beat his wife after she attended a talk on family planning. To this day Oportunidades critics, including some feminist organizations, hold up such cases as proof that the program provokes domestic violence. However, experts question the validity of those charges.

Demographer María de la Paz López, the widow of one of the program’s architects, argues that such incidents should be viewed as part of an unfolding process rather than as a static snapshot. Did the women suffer violence before they joined the program, or did their husbands begin to attack them after they enrolled? “One of the authors who wrote about these incidents of violence also noted the case of a woman who sought out her neighbors’ help. When the husband saw that this was becoming a community issue, he changed his ways,” says López, who works for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Oportunidades beneficiaries in rural communities can quickly list ways the program has benefited them. “Children are in high school. They never used to go beyond middle school,” says a woman in Tlicalco. “Girls only went to elementary school. Now they say they want to be teachers and nurses,” adds another one. “Our diets are more varied now,” says a third woman. “I manage the money they give me. I save it for my children,” says another one.

In the town of Coscomatepec, women from poor neighborhoods also attest to the program’s impact on their lives. They say babies look better fed than before. Children are going to school with complete uniforms. Young women seem to be getting married later these days. One mother, Reyna Ramos, says she enrolled in an adult education program through Oportunidades and is finishing middle school. Now she can help her own children with their homework, and when she has to go to classes, her husband takes care of the kids. “I feel my husband respects me more,” says Ramos. “He doesn’t yell at me like he used to. He too is becoming more conscious.”

Beneficiaries are playing increasingly active roles in the program. Communities select a group of delegates who visit schools and check with teachers if children are missing classes too often, for example. Health delegates see if mothers are taking their children to the doctor. If a neighbor says she can’t attend a lecture because she has no one to leave her children with, a delegate will help her solve the problem.

This level of awareness and participation took years to develop. When Concepción Steta joined the program in 2001 as state coordinator in Veracruz, she came with views shaped during her 20 years of activism in Mexico’s nonprofit sector. Steta, who now is Oportunidades’ director for planning and evaluation, said one of her priorities was to find out what beneficiaries thought of the program. In collaboration with local NGOs, she organized a series of meetings with women from indigenous communities. While she found that the program was delivering on its promises, beneficiaries largely viewed it as a gift from the government. “We had to start working with the women on another focus, from the perspective of participation,” says Steta. “This program is a right, not a handout. No one can take it away from them. It only depends on them meeting their responsibilities.”

As a result, Oportunidades started to hold workshops in indigenous communities where women had those perceptions or where local authorities claimed to be pulling strings to enroll families in the program. The goal was to raise beneficiaries’ awareness of their rights as citizens and the program’s nonpartisan nature. The central messages are echoed in the vast transparency campaigns Oportunidades undertakes ahead of national, state and local elections.

In Veracruz, where a vote was held in September 2004, Oportunidades held meetings with its agents, teachers, health workers and local officials to remind them about their responsibilities as public servants and the penalties for breaking electoral laws. The program also held massive assemblies with beneficiaries where they encouraged women to denounce anyone who tried to pressure them.

One of its flyers stated: “Oportunidades is not sold or exchanged for votes.”

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