Bolivia's Rural Women Are Finding Their Voice

Monte Reel, Washington Post Foreign Service

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

EL ALTO, Bolivia -- The women attending Esperanza Mitta's community meetings moved here from tiny mountain villages and worn-out mining towns, and now they are fashioning a modern metropolis out of whatever they have in hand.
Toilet paper serves as decorative bunting on the walls of their meeting hall. A rocky vacant lot, surrounded by several leafless trees, serves as their "central plaza." A nearby soccer goal, recently used by neighborhood vigilantes to hang a thief, is considered a local law enforcement tool.

For all the ways they have changed this city, though, the women have altered their own lives even more.

"We don't have educations, so we get together and talk about how we can teach ourselves skills," said Mitta, 51. "A lot of the women just need to work out some of the fears that they have about living in a city, and they all do it, little by little."

For the first time in the world's history, more people next year will live in cities than in rural areas, according to U.N. population experts. Women are leading the urban push, leaving the countryside at higher rates than men, lured in large part by domestic service jobs. They tend to gravitate to places like this: a sprawling expanse in a developing nation struggling to provide basic infrastructure.

Because of people like Mitta, this former hamlet is now larger than the neighboring city of La Paz. El Alto had a population of about 11,000 in 1950, exploded to about 400,000 people by the 1990s and could surpass the 1 million mark next year, according to city officials. The majority of houses lack indoor plumbing and sewer service. Collecting local taxes to pay for services is difficult because about 70 percent of the economy is off-the-books.

It was in those conditions that Mitta started organizing women's meetings several years ago. About 30 of her neighbors get together to talk, many of them dressed in the same shawls and pleated skirts they wore in the indigenous communities where they were born. Newcomers are often shy; the lifestyle changes they are going through can be so overwhelming that they don't know where to start. Unlike some of the men, who had held jobs that exposed them to broader social systems, many of the women had rarely strayed from immediate family and neighbors before moving here.

"The women have to make a lot more changes than the men when they move to a city like this," acknowledged David Apaza, whose family is part of the migration wave to El Alto. "In the countryside, they've lived the same way for hundreds of years, but everything is different here."

The process of change can send women's personal relationships into dizzying spins, but it also can give them collective opportunities previously unknown. One of the most important things they have found in these unpaved streets, many said, is something unimaginable in the countryside: a voice.

Social Transformation

El Alto stretches across a plateau more than 13,000 feet above sea level. In the early evening, one's gaze is drawn to the distance -- snow-covered peaks, the lights of La Paz flickering in a bowl-shaped valley below. The immediate surroundings are less inviting: an imprecise grid of dirt streets, block after block of low-slung adobe and brick houses, abandoned tires, stray dogs nosing through trash piles.
Mitta's neighborhood is known as Villa Mercedes G, and she lives there with about 10,000 other people. She commutes each day in a series of minibuses to a housekeeping job in La Paz. The trip -- an hour and a half each way -- consumes nearly a third of her monthly salary of about $50.

One recent evening, she arrived at her simple two-bedroom brick home as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. In the electric light of the kitchen, her husband, Celadonio, stood before a stove spreading dough to make fritters for their dinner. His sun-browned hands were gloved in white flour. His left hand was missing a finger, the result of an accident when he worked in a copper mine.

"He cooks," Mitta said, and behind the frame of her glasses her eyebrow arched playfully. "He also washes clothes. We do things together because we both have to work so much."

Times have changed since Mitta became one of El Alto's urban pioneers, seeking opportunity after the mine where Celadonio worked closed in the mid-1980s. Her evolution -- replicated thousands of times over by the multitudes who follow the same route -- started as soon as she reached El Alto's point of entry and main commercial drag, La Ceja.

Then, as now, it was a sensory riot: Minibuses loaded beyond capacity nudge bumpers while jockeying for space. Street vendors hawk tea, watches, T-shirts, chickens and just about everything else. At night, men and women spill out of dance halls, the dark mud underfoot sucking at their heels. Witnessing a spontaneous street fight is the norm, not the exception.

It's a heady gateway for newcomers from mines or subsistence farms who never carried a coin in their pocket. The transition into a monetary society -- which usually occurred over generations in most developed nations -- happens immediately here.
"When a woman moves here, she can't be a housewife and take care of her family like she used to -- she has to work to survive," Mitta said.

Celadonio couldn't find a job at first after they arrived. But Mitta agreed to clean the offices of a nongovernmental organization, in exchange for a room where the couple and their four children could sleep and a little bit of food. She worked from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week for three years. Eventually, Celadonio found work at a minibus station, and Mitta landed her housecleaning job in La Paz.

"The men at first don't want the women to work," Mitta said. "There's a lot of chauvinism, and they often treat the women badly. I have seen so many separations. I almost split with my husband -- twice. The kids always suffer, because they are alone so much. This isn't just my family that I'm talking about -- the majority of families go through this."

Her women's group meets about once a week. The variety of topics is wide: nutrition, cooking with the different types of foods available in the city, the challenges of raising children in an urban environment. Delinquency is a problem, they say. Some blame it on the hours they have to work away from home.

Conversations like theirs could probably be overheard in any city, because the women here increasingly conform to universal urban prototypes. Their personal transformations -- particularly the shift in emphasis away from complete dedication to family -- have become visible in national statistics. The Bolivian fertility rate, for example, has dropped from about 6.5 children for each woman to about 3.9 over the past 30 years. In the same period, the country's population has gone from mostly rural to about 65 percent urban.

Mitta said one of the most visible barometers of change in her neighborhood is the appearance of day-care centers.

About six blocks from her house, two men struggled with a heavy wooden pole at the side of a dirt road. They were helping a woman install electricity in a day-care center -- all on their own, with no help from city or utility officials.

A Growing Influence

The dean of Mitta's group is Bertha Vargas, who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years and claims to know everyone in it. Ask her, and she'll guess that the ratio of women to men in El Alto is 5 to 1. Ask Mitta, and she'll guess 3 to 1. Ask Mitta's husband, and he'll guess 6 to 1.

Census figures say the ratio is almost even, which is one reason many here don't put much faith in census figures.

"It seems like if there's any kind of public gathering or meeting here -- it doesn't matter what kind -- there are always more women than men," Mitta said. "I'm not sure why, but there are."

The members of the women's group say they came together out of a simple desire to share one another's burdens. When faced with such elemental changes in their personal lives, people naturally seek comfort in the community, Vargas said.
"If you have a group of women in one place, they'll always get together and make plans," she said.

Those plans are getting more political as the women expand their connections. The day before a recent group meeting, Mitta and several other women spent the morning sitting at a roadblock outside their neighborhood in a protest against the local governor.

Although La Paz is Bolivia's seat of government, El Alto is its capital of political activism. Unrest among El Alto's residents -- more than 80 percent of whom describe themselves as indigenous -- has led to massive protests and strikes that forced the resignations of successive presidents in 2003 and 2005.

The migration of rural families to El Alto has sparked the unrest, said Mayor Fanor Nava Santiesteban. Thousands come here from the countryside each year carrying little but high expectations.

"They come directly from rural areas, and when they get here, they have a lot of needs and demands," said Santiesteban, who moved to the city 23 years ago from the mining community of Llallagua. "They arrive, get together, form groups and make their demands known."

The women have been part of that, in many cases becoming far more active in civic life than they had been in the countryside. Over the past several years, the number of women helping to lead the neighborhood federations, which serve as entryways to civic activism, has increased to about 20 percent of the total.

It might not sound like much, but Mitta and the other women have definitely noticed the change.

"It feels like we are starting to get some power," she said. "That's new."

Republished from Washington Post

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