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Where Were the Women? A Critical Question for Latin America's Left

By Karen Lee Wald

Insight Features

HAVANA--The fourth gathering of what has come to be called the Sao Paulo Forum--an ongoing dialog among Latin American leftist parties and movements that began in that Brazilian city four years ago--took place in Havana, Cuba the third week in June.

Although few concrete proposals came out of this four-day conclave, it was significant, according to its principal organizers, if for no other reason than because "five years ago, these groups weren't even speaking to each other." If there is ever to be an alternative agenda for the Latin American poor and working class, peasants and pensioners, and those who regardless of class believe in social justice and economic democracy, it will only come about if there is unity among all those who share these goals, they say.

But although certain levels of unity were achieved, there was a gaping hole in what otherwise represented an amazingly broad spectrum of left-of-center political parties, social action groups and movements (guerrilla and otherwise). Women were almost nowhere to be seen.

Of the 233 delegates from over 100 parties listed as delegates (members of the forum), only 25 were women.

Of the countries which had any women at all, most had only one. Argentina, Mexico, Paraguay and Uruguay had, respectively, 6, 4, 3 and 2--but they also had the largest number of delegates.

Of the parties represented as members, only 2 had more than one woman: Argentina's Movimiento Los de Abajo and Izquierda Democratica Popular had two each, Mexico's Partido Socialista Popular had two.

Even countries where women have had notable participation on the battlefield and/or in government, such as Nicaragua and Cuba, women were absent from the official delegations.

And adding the 62 "observer" delegations only added another 18 women, 11 of them from Europe and 4 from the US (although Cuba, as host country, also had a large number of women present in a variety of capacities OTHER THAN as official delegates).

The 25 women delegates were not slow in recognizing their relative isolation. On the last day of the conference, they passed out a one-page statement:

"From the island of Cuba, small giant, symbol and example of anti-imperialist resistance, land of Mariana Grajales and Ana Betancourt, the women present in this Gathering want to point out the obvious:

"This has been a masculine forum...."

The Forum had discussed the economic, social and political situation of Latin America and the Caribbean; it had talked about the relations between social movements and political parties, and about political education, but -- they said--it done so from a biased (male) perspective.

"Neoliberalism" (the trendy economic/political programs in vogue in Latin America, whose made-in-USA trickle-down economic theories help the rich get richer and the poor get homeless and hungry), they pointed out, "is waging an offensive against all of our peoples, but it sets out policies that affect women in a very specific way."

The heaviest burdens of the government's withdrawal from social action programs fall on the shoulders of women, they asserted, "increasing our work load and augmenting the sexual division of labor."

Women are the first to be expelled from the productive sector of the labor market to the informal sector (housework, childcare, street vending). When they do get hired, they have to deal with the double shift--one in poorly paid occupations, the other unpaid at home. Cuba women, they note, have the triple burden of the US-imposed blockade.

Some of the effects of these neoliberal programs are, for example, the introduction of population control, denying women free choice concerning maternity and sexuality. And violence against women has also increased along with the more generalized violence, institutionalized and otherwise, provoked by the social unrest caused by these policies.

To make matters worse, neoliberal policies have often been successful in coopting the women's movement in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Faced with all this, one would expect all the progressive movements and parties--of which women are usually the backbone--to take an active position concerning this aspect of popular struggles. After all, women have been active protagonists in all the struggles in the region, from mass mobilizations, political parties, social struggles in communities to armed struggle in the cities and mountains. "But when it comes time for leadership and decision-making, we are left on the sidelines," commented the women delegates. "And this Forum is one example."

Noting the sparse representation of women, they observed wryly, "Either we consider this a problem of biological inferiority, or it expresses a problem of oppressive social, historic and cultural relations which we should confront once and for all."

They went on to point out that "If we haven't been able to enrich the analysis of this Forum with our presence, it's because there is still sexist discrimination in the political parties and organizations of the Latin American Left."

Among those present at the Forum were parties seeking to gain power through elections, some of whom will probably win. The women protested that they want to be more than just numbers to fill the voting lists. Nor do they want to hold decorative and secondary administrative positions in those parties. "We want to share in the decision-making."

While the delegates at the Forum were outlining the kind of democracy they hope to create in the region (rejecting any form of electoral democracy that doesn't include true economic democracy and full participation of all classes), the women point out that two aspects were left out: democratization of the relations of daily life (home and work place), on the one hand, and democratization within the party structures, where unequal relations between the sexes still abound.

They objected to the repeated use of the term "man" to refer to all human beings, arguing that "the other half is being left out: us."

The saddest thing about this occurring among parties and organizations that are struggling to transform society is that "it leaves the women's liberation movement in the hands of the Right, which will void it of its revolutionary political content."

This is a political challenge to all of us, they argued, and there should be a collective response. "It's time for all parties and organizations to take on this problem, as part of an overall program to eliminate all forms of social, ethnic, racial, cultural and sexual oppression," they stated. "We don't want our ideas and proposals to be just appendixes to the general program. It is essential that our effective presence in the Forum provide a world view that integrates the feminine and the masculine with the universal, and that that be expressed in each and every resolution." And its up to each party to guarantee the presence of their male and female members."

Concretely, they proposed a series of actions, including:

  • a seminar-workshop on the woman question
  • a space within each seminar-workshop proposed by the Forum on other topics, to deal with women's issues and present a woman's focus to each topic;
  • solidarity actions:

A call for men and women to demonstrate in front of US embassies in their respective countries to condemn the criminal blockade against Cuba on the first day of sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, and

With the same objective, on December 10 (Human Rights Day), once again demonstrate to show that "women and men of Latin America and the Caribbean who love democracy and social justice, and who fight to bring about a new society, will fight to defend Cuba."

Karen Wald is an American journalist writing for Prensa Latina from Havana.

Last modified 2005-02-11 11:55 AM

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