Progress in women's liberation in Latin America

The situation of women in Latin America today seems both encouraging and disgraceful. In different spheres women have achieved both professional and political recognition. Many top professionals are women, and we even have female presidents, like Michelle Bachelet, Cristina Kirchner or the recently elected president of Costa Rica. For women of the urban middle classes, access to tertiary education and paid professional jobs have dramatically increased in the last 40 years.

However, most people living under the poverty line are women and their children; the majority of the people displaced by internal conflict, as in Colombia, are women; women continue to be killed on the northern and southern borders of Mexico in some of the most cruel expressions of hate against women. These situations are aggravated for women who are poor, black or indigenous. In most countries, abortion continues to be penalised, and women have little decision-making power over their own bodies and lives.

In this context, feminism, women’s liberation, should be a priority. There are different tendencies and paths that feminist theories have followed, particularly in the Western world, but for women in the underdeveloped world, the discussion is focused on the distinction between bourgeois feminism and socialist feminism.

Bourgeois feminism advocates our right to be part of a system of exploitation, to be Chief Executive Officers in multinational companies or to participate in genocidal wars against other peoples. This feminism shows us that Margaret Thatcher can be as neoliberal as her counterpart Ronald Reagan, that she is capable of making unemployed thousands of workers, regardless of their gender. It is a “feminism” in which Lynndie England tortures and abuses Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Socialist feminism, or the movement for women’s liberation, fights for human rights, for cultural and economic rights, for protection of the environment and for a life free of violence of all kinds.

Building equality in resistance

On the eve of 1994 in the mountains of southern Mexico, an army of indigenous people took several municipalities, demanding to be heard. The fact that indigenous people, generally ignored and minimised for 500 years of colonialism, formed an army was surprising; more surprising was the fact that a high percentage of them, including of their central military command, were women.

Soon after we learned that from March 1993 the Zapatista women brought forward the Revolutionary Law for Women’s Rights, approved by the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee, the highest command of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. They demanded the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle, the right to paid work with adequate wages, the right to decide when and whom to marry, the right to decide how many children to have.

In the Zapatista communities, women run a big proportion of the production system and the economy. In the Zapatista communities, young women are free to decide what they want to do, how they want to be useful for their communities. Women are elected as representatives. It has been a long struggle to change cultural and patriarchal patterns, to change centuries of repression, exploitation, illiteracy. Those women stopped with their hands the army coming into their communities, carried arms during the uprising and are building their communities together with men — women like Comandanta Susana, Comandanta Ramona or Comandanta Esther, the first indigenous woman to speak in front of the racist Mexican parliament, broadcast on national TV talking about the indigenous right of sovereignty and a better society for her people, for the Mexican people.

Socialism requires the indigenous and women

Bolivia illustrates the exemplary struggle of women for sovereignty as Bolivians and as indigenous women. In the war of independence 200 years ago, Bolivian women fought on the front line, but once the war was over, the equality of the front line did not carry over into political representation, education or economic opportunities.

The “water war” in 2000 and the “gas war” in 2003, both against privatisation of resources by foreign corporations, were a turning point in women’s struggle, showing us that feminism should be anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist. Since Evo Morales and the MAS (Movement toward Socialism) came to power, the role of women had been crucial. Women are not only in the front line of protests, but are now 30% of parliament, heads of trade unions and half of Evo’s cabinet; they are part of the decision making and transformation of Bolivia. This has not been the result of positive discrimination, but of empowerment of women by being part of the struggle. They have fought illiteracy and continue to fight starvation.

Senator Gabriela Montano says: “This is the fruit of women’s fight: the tangible proofs of this new state, of this new Bolivia, are the increasing participation of the indigenous peoples and the increasing participation of women in the decision-making process of this country”.

Resisting state terror in Colombia

In a civil war, women and their children suffer the most. Women become military targets, as the state abuses their vulnerable situation to terrorise and destroy communities. But women have found the way to resist the state terror that has characterised the 50-year war in Colombia by being part of the civil and armed resistance.

Poverty and marginalisation, not only in Colombia but in Latin America generally, perpetuate the oppression of women, who are more prone to exploitation, rape, lack of opportunities and bearing children who will end up begging on the streets or displaced by war. But in the mountains and the resistance, they fight alongside men, building a new society. Up to 60% of new FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) recruits are women. Escaping from their impoverished communities, they find a space where their voices are heard, where they can decide over their own lives, where they can learn to read, to debate, to fight, where they don’t have to stop being women. In the armed and political struggles, women have earned leadership by working together to change their reality.

Revolution within the revolution

When the Granma landed on the shores of Cuba and the open war against Bastista started, there were no women in the expedition. Traditional patriarchal roles dictated that only men could fight in a war for national liberation. Soon after, women like Vilma Espín, Aleida March and countless others carried out decisive military operations that led to the victory of the Cuban Revolution.

Within the revolution, Cuban women have organised to be part of the construction of their new society. They have demanded equal rights, now guaranteed in the constitution, and it is state policy to make sure equality is real. The victories that Cuban women have won go far beyond political representation in local and national bodies. Cuban women have full access to education, employment opportunities, equal wages, equal jobs. Cuban women are protected by a universal health care system. They have the right to decide when and how many children they have. They enjoy a child-care system that ensures women can study, work and be part of all developments, while the whole community helps them raise healthy children, looked after by the community and the state. Cuban women are doctors, work in construction, in the arts. Cuban women are parliamentarians, teachers and builders of their own future.

Similarly to Bolivia, Cuba shows us that the advancement of women and their leading role in revolution cannot be the product of “positive discrimination” or setting quotas for bureaucratic positions, but of women fighting for their rights. It is based on women having equal access to work and freedom of speech and opinion.

The examples of the Mexican Zapatistas and the brave Colombian guerrillas in resisting and building better communities are unfortunately not enjoyed by the rest of their compatriots. In Mexico, women continue to be sexually exploited, murdered on the borders and jailed for having abortions. In the rest of Colombia, women continue to be displaced and condemned to poverty and suffering under state terror.

The great achievements that have improved the lives of many women have set examples to follow, but all Mexican, all Colombian, all Latin American women deserve a life with dignity, and this will be possible only when socialist feminism is an essential part of the national agenda of the Latin American states. Latin American women deserve and are fighting for real equality, for real political representation, housing, food and education, against the capitalist system.