Latin American women and their fight against fear

Brazil and Honduras are two countries in which women are taking the lead in stories of empowerment and resistance against established power in Latin America.

Benjamin Serra

GENDER-BASED violence and femicide, the emancipation of women, female circumcision, universal suffrage, equal pay and work for men and women are some of the issues that arise in different geographic regions.

Those problems occur because in many regions of this planet, women as a community are undervalued, mistreated and ignored, which is what leads them to protest and fight for their rights. This is the case in many Latin American countries, including Brazil and Honduras.

These are nations where a deep machismo prevails, and where these untenable and dangerous situations impinge on women's physical and emotional lives, detracting from their opportunities in work and society.

Dona Dij‚, collector of the babassu nuts (baba‡u in Portuguese) that grow in the Amazon, and Dina Meza, Honduran journalist and defender of human rights, are two clear examples of brave women taking the lead in very different struggles in Latin America.

The babassu nut collectors of Brazil

Some 300,000 women provide for their families in Brazil by collecting and cracking nuts produced by the babassu, a palm tree that grows on the sides of the Amazon River and produces a  sought-after oil.

For the quebradeiras, as these women are known, this tree is their only source of income. However, today the Brazilian government is supporting biofuel production, mining and other full-scale activities.

To tackle this problem, these women formed a movement to defend their rights.

Various small communities of working women united their strength to create the Movement of Babassu Women Nut Crackers (MIQCB) to give a voice to this community, allowing them to improve their quality of life and avoid being marginalised.

One of the movement's founders is Dona Dij‚, a descendant of slaves from the Maranhao region in the north of the country and a quebradeira since the age of 16. She shared her experience in an event organised recently by War on Want in London.

She says: 'It hasn't been an easy fight. It is a long road and we have had to organise ourselves because they want to change our way of life'. Therefore, the women's first battle is focused on the right to own their land and have their work respected.

They are also fighting for their rights to have access to healthcare and education. This is why they have decided to unite.

The women's movement has extended to the states of Piauˇ, Par and Tocantins, as well as Maranhao, all in the northeast of Brazil. 'We have achieved many things but there is still much more to do,' says Dij‚.

With the creation of this movement, these women decided to gain control of the entire process through cooperatives, from collection of the nuts to the sale of the end product. But they also have to face another problem, deforestation. 'If they cut down the babassu forest we will have no income. We want to protect our environment in every possible aspect. We don't want to abandon our territory because we are intrinsically linked to it, each tree, each plant and our children grow up free there.'

Proud of her work, Dij‚ emphasises that 'We are mothers, we look after our homes, we work, crack nuts and provide everything else for our families'. This work is what allows them to keep their homes and that is why they are fighting to defend their rights.

The Honduran coup d'etat

The fight for human rights and women in particular, has a prominent role in Honduras. The Central American country has been in constitutional crisis since 2009.

This, as the Honduran journalist Dina Meza states, had been planned by the most powerful groups in the country, formed by 10 influential families, including the Facuss‚, the Andonie and the Canahuati clans, with the support of the United States.

According to Meza, the oligarchy was annoyed by the reforms, although minor, introduced by the previous government and decided to take control of the country. Since then, they have sold rivers and other natural resources to transnational corporations.

This has allowed them to keep more than 80% of the nation's wealth. 'Honduras is in its current state not because it is a poor country but because it has been impoverished by the 10 families that misgovern the country,' Meza says.

The journalist says that damaging laws have been approved against human rights and workers, controlling communications and militarising the country, allowing the building of US bases in Honduras.

Even so, there has been resistance - the strongest coming from women. 'Despite the male chauvinism and patriarchal system that wants us in our houses, being mistreated, alone and in silence, with the coup happening on our doorsteps, we have been able to go out onto the streets,' says Meza.

'The military and the police insult us, denigrate us and call us prostitutes. But that doesn't stop us.'

The women include workers, maquila workers, peasants, professionals and defenders of human rights, who confront the injustice despite being victims of 'rape, persecution and harassment'.

'When the coup began, the military used to bring condoms to rape women,' points out Meza. 'We want to fight. History has been built with our fights. The problem is that we are not the ones who write it and that's why we do not appear in it.'

Meza, who is in England as a result of persecution, highlights the fight of peasant women against the landowner Miguel Facuss‚ in Zacate Grande and Bajo Agu an.

Even when 'they watch over us, persecute us and insult us, women's courage goes beyond all that. We want a Constituent National Assembly. We have to change our country,' she declares.

She also says she is not scared. 'My only fear is not being able to participate because I can't say to my children that I did nothing to try and solve this problem. That would be even worse than getting a bullet from the military.'                                    

This article was first published in The Prisma - The Multicultural Newspaper .

*Third World Resurgence No. 271/272, Mar/Apr 2013, pp 43-44