BY SANDRA GARCIA
Five years ago, Terry Morel got a revealing look at how Guatemalan women were traditionally kept on the outside looking in.
Morel, the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugee's focal point for women and children refugees in Mexico's southern Chiapas state, recalled a 1990 meeting on income-generating projects for refugees sponsored by UNHCR and the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR).
"We were meeting in the school of one refugee camp, a small bamboo shelter," Morel said. "About half an hour into the meeting, I realized that all the women in the camp were standing outside the building looking in at us through the bamboo walls. They were trying to understand what was happening. But they did not dare to enter, nor to participate. Nobody invited them either. I realized then that we could not afford to exclude half the refugee labor force from these projects."
After generations of living on the fringes, Guatemalan women are finally standing up for their rights. And in the forefront are refugee women who benefitted from UNHCR-sponsored education and training programs covering all aspects of human and gender rights.
"Back in Guatemala, we didn't even know we had any rights because we had no education. We were ignorant," said Aura Suchite de Rosa, a 23-year-old refugee living in a small camp in Campeche, another of the three southern Mexican states hosting refugees.
Suchite de Rosa is one of the new generation of Guatemalan women, confident that they can make a difference when they go home. She knows she is fortunate to have received at least some education, unlike many of the older women in her camp who can barely talk when approached by strangers. They smile nervously and hide their faces. They think they are too old to learn to speak Spanish, or if they do speak Spanish, too old to learn to write it and read it. They think their place is in the kitchen, beside their wood stoves.
How can they help it? Guatemalan refugee women are carrying the heavy burden of an ancient tradition of discrimination. Before fleeing to Mexico in the 1980s, these indigenous women thought it was normal to be kidnapped by men who wanted to marry them; to be beaten if meals were not prepared on time; to give their own food to the males in the family; to be pulled out of school at an early age so they could take care of their younger siblings; to ignore their own health while nursing their large families.
In UNHCR's early years in Mexico, the problems of Guatemalan refugee women were not so obvious for the simple reason that they refused to talk about personal matters. Now, 12 years later, they have only just begun to share the pain they experienced, including sexual abuse at the hands of the military.
Refugee settlements in the states of Quintana Roo and Campeche were designed as small, self-contained villages with their own schools, clinics and other necessities. But in remote, mountainous Chiapas, there are some 120 camps and spontaneous settlements scattered along the Mexican Guatemalan border. Some of them are very difficult to reach. The refugees come from six different ethnic groups, each with its own language. Most of the women in the Chiapas camps, unlike the men, never learned to speak Spanish. COMAR and UNHCR designed income-generating projects for the women. But it was not easy to get them involved - they lacked the confidence to take on a business.
Then, four factors coincided to boost the gender focus approach. First, the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) established a framework for cooperation with NGOs. Second, CIAM, a Central American NGO specializing in women's issues, arrived in Chiapas and helped focus attention on the problem. Third, UNHCR Mexico began an in-depth evaluation of the problems faced by Guatemalan women refugees in preparation for the first regional forum on refugee and repatriated women (FOREFEM) in Guatemala in 1992. The resulting guidelines were later incorporated in the CIREFCA approach.
Fourth, and most important, Guatemalan refugee women established their own organization, Mama Maquin. "One day we realized we were an important part of our people and we concluded that only by organizing ourselves would we be listened to and respected," said Reina Montejo, a Mama Maquin member.
With the help of Mama Maquin, UNHCR was able to cover all refugee camps no matter what language the women spoke. The first public activity of Mama Maquin was to carry out a survey of women's needs in Chiapas. Almost 900 women of different ages and origin were interviewed in 60 camps to determine their main problems and to decide priorities.
The survey results were quite depressing. "I was shocked by the women's low level of self-esteem," recalled Terry Morel. "All of them considered themselves too old, useless or too tired. They were not interested in training activities. They suffered from malnutrition and were very sad."
Mama Maqu’n, UNHCR and COMAR decided to introduce projects to reinforce the women's self-esteem. Most activities focused on training, health, education, and human rights projects. A radio program produced and directed by the refugee women was aired for free by a local radio station.
To date, some 8,000 women in Mexico and Guatemala have participated in the activities of Mama Maquin and similar organizations that soon followed, including Madre Tierra (Mother Earth), Ixmucan‚ (the Mayan grandmother goddess) and Flores Unidas.
But convincing Guatemalan men of the value of these women's activities remains difficult because it challenges traditional male perceptions. In some cases, women have had to assume a double workload - carrying out their household chores as well as their new responsibilities in various projects ranging from running small bakeries to market gardening. But some men have accepted the new roles taken on by their wives.
"My husband helps me at home, but I know a guy who prefers to go to the river at midnight to wash the clothes rather than be seen helping his wife when she is away in a meeting," said Ang‚lica Gonzalez, a leader of Madre Tierra.
Sometimes, it is easier to persuade a husband to accept the changed role than to convince his mother or sisters. "They laugh at my husband, saying he is a fool manipulated by a woman," said Gonzalez.
The women's organizations emphasize that their activities are aimed at promoting the voluntary repatriation program that has already helped some 18,000 Guatemalans return home. In this context, their work has been successful and the women's groups have become indispensable partners both before and during the repatriation movements. They educate prospective returnees on what to expect and they distribute food and other assistance during the trip back.
A visible result of the awareness campaigns developed by refugee women is an increase in legal complaints against men. Nearly half the complaints addressed by protection officials in Mexico involve accusations of sexual harassment, rape or domestic violence. Gender violence per se is not a new phenomenon. What has changed is the willingness of women to report such cases. So far, most of the projects implemented by the refugees and funded by UNHCR are aimed at providing the most basic and urgent needs, and do not address the more fundamental obstacles that prevent women from taking a more active role in the development process.
For example, only a small fraction of teachers and trainers are female. Except for midwives, most of the health promoters are male as well. And unlike male health promoters, who receive a small payment for their work, midwives receive no money.
Most of the returnees are members of collectives and they must build new villages from scratch houses, churches, schools, markets, water and sanitation systems, roads, everything. And they have to do it in a sometimes hostile environment. In the Ixc n area, near the Mexican border, for example, the military and the guerrillas are still in conflict. Sometimes, this conflict puts women in a unique role as mediator and protector.
"This area is full of soldiers," said Carmen Salazar, a returnee to Tercer Pueblo. "Because of the danger, we women have to join men and support them.
"The army burned our houses and crops in August 1982 and established a military camp in the urban zone of the cooperative. When we came back, they were still occupying our land. So, I organized a women's demonstration demanding their withdrawal in December 1993."
After months of negotiations, the army withdrew from the land in April 1994, enabling the returnees to move in.
"The army is like a husband who beats you a lot but still wants you to love him," said Salazar, who owns her own plot of land. Her field, a 90-minute walk from her home, remains unplowed a year after her arrival in Tercer Pueblo. With the security situation still unsettled, her oldest son is afraid to work in such a remote place.
Military aircraft continue to fly overhead around Tercer Pueblo, frightening the children. Sometimes, gunfire is heard in the surrounding hills. Salazar and her neighbors just want to get on with their lives.
"The army is here because the guerrillas are here," she said. "So, if there were no guerrillas, there would be no army. We now know that fighting is not a solution to our problems. So why don't the army commanders and the guerrilla commanders just go to a stadium far from Ixc n and fight there and leave us alone in peace?"
Guatemalan women know the road to peace and prosperity is a difficult one. But they are unwilling to turn back, to go back to the old ways, because the refugee experience has changed them.
"We are not the same," declared Gregoria Suchite, an Ixmucan‚ leader preparing to return home. "We do not want to go back to Guatemala just to keep pigs in our backyard, living as we always did. We women have participated in the planning of our future cooperative. I never imagined we could do that."
Refugees, Official Publication of the U.N High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR)