• Wednesday, July 30, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    MEXICO: Indigenous Woman on the Offensive

    By Diego Cevallos

    MEXICO CITY, Apr 1 (IPS) – Two years ago, Eufrosina Cruz was kept from running for mayor of her home village by the "traditions and customs" of her indigenous community in southern Mexico, just
    because she is a woman.

    But she refused to back down, and challenged the tradition =96 a decision
    that brought her death threats, but also dreams and achievements that she
    had never imagined.

    On Tuesday, the 29-year-old Zapoteca Indian woman presented in the
    Mexican capital a new civil society association aimed at highlighting the
    deep-rooted nature of native traditions and customs in many communities,
    especially in the impoverished southern state of Oaxaca, where a large
    proportion of the population is indigenous.

    "If in November 2010, women can finally vote in my village and one
    of them is elected mayor, I will be more than happy; it will be the best
    achievement of this association, through which I promise to become even
    more crazy, which is what people in my village say I am," Cruz said
    in an interview with IPS.

    Her group is called Quiego, short for Queremos Unir Integrando por
    Equidad y G=E9nero en Oaxaca (roughly, "we want to come together for
    equity and gender in Oaxaca"). The acronym was inspired by Santa
    Mar=EDa Quiegaloni, the name of her village of 800 Zapoteca Indians,
    located in the mountains of Oaxaca, one of Mexico=92s poorest states.

    Quiego "plans to hold workshops and organise women=92s groups, first
    in my village, and later throughout Oaxaca and anywhere else that we can,
    to raise awareness on women=92s political rights and help them understand
    that some traditions are no good, but that we are not alone, and that we
    have to wake up," she said.

    In November 2007, Cruz ran for mayor of Quiegaloni, where under native
    traditions and customs that are recognised by local and federal law,
    village authorities are elected in assembly, but supposedly based on the
    premise of respect for the constitutional rights guaranteeing equality
    between men and women.

    Cruz, an accountant, was the first woman to attempt to run for mayor
    there. Although some of the men backed her up, the heads of the local
    assembly said tradition blocked her from participating, as a woman.

    Of Oaxaca=92s 570 municipalities, 418 are governed according to indigenous
    traditions and customs, and in 82 of them, women are not allowed to vote
    or stand for office.

    But that denial of women=92s political rights had not been loudly protested
    until Cruz brought the problem to the attention of state and national
    authorities.

    "I always said things couldn=92t stay this way, that it was unfair.
    But I didn=92t imagine that all the rest of this would happen," she
    said.

    By "all the rest" she was referring to anonymous death threats
    that led to police protection for her, as well as the approval of a
    reform of the Oaxaca state constitution at her initiative, which clearly
    stipulates that no local tradition can apply if it denies the political
    rights of indigenous women.

    But she also meant the numerous invitations to take part in conferences
    and in meetings with legislators and government officials, and the
    decision by the Mexican government of conservative President Felipe
    Calder=F3n to award her the national youth prize, consisting of 100,000
    dollars, for her work on behalf of women.

    "Last year I quit my job (as coordinator of academic programmes in
    technical high schools in Oaxaca) to dedicate myself completely to the
    cause of defending our women, to coming together to talk and to gradually
    finding a way out of this ugly poverty and denial of our rights,"
    she said.

    Mexico is the Latin American country with the largest indigenous
    population in absolute numbers, which is variously estimated to make up
    between 12 and 30 percent of the country=92s 104 million people (the
    smaller, official, estimate is based on the number of people who actually
    speak an indigenous language). The overwhelming majority of the Mexican
    population is of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry.

    More than 90 percent of the 12 million officially counted indigenous
    people live in extreme poverty, nearly 50 percent are illiterate, and 80
    percent of the children under five are badly malnourished, according to
    the human development report on Mexican indigenous people published in
    2006 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

    A study focusing on gender issues by the government National Commission
    for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, also released in 2006, states
    that "among the poorest of the poor, among the most marginalised of
    the marginalised, are indigenous women."

    "On many occasions, they are discriminated against because they are
    indigenous, because they are women, and because they are poor. The social
    systems of their own communities also frequently exclude them," says
    the report on "indicators with a gender perspective for indigenous
    peoples".

    Among the country=92s indigenous people, there are 636,720 women who only
    speak native languages, compared to 371,083 men. And 27 percent of native
    people over 15 are illiterate, by contrast with a national average of 9.5
    percent. But illiteracy among indigenous women is 34.5 percent, against
    19.6 percent of men.

    In Oaxaca, 39 percent of native women and 22.3 percent of native men over
    15 are illiterate.

    "Among my people, many women still believe that that=92s how it should
    be, that rights are only for men, that only they deserve to study,"
    said Cruz. "But I tell them that they have to open their eyes and
    change, even if they are threatened horribly, like what happened to
    me."

    Cruz left Quiegolani at the age of 11 because she did not want to end up
    being married off at 13, like her sister, and raising a gaggle of
    children in absolute poverty.

    She wanted to study, and managed to do so after working for several years
    as a domestic and as a street hawker in Salina Cruz, an Oaxaca city of
    800,000 people.

    Up to last year, Cruz divided her time between her job in the educational
    system and her activism. "But I quit because I didn=92t want to
    endanger my bosses, who supported me. There are people who want to kill
    me, so I decided it was better to leave my job," she said.

    Quiego has a small office in the state capital, Oaxaca, and another in
    Santa Mar=EDa Quiegaloni. With the national youth prize money, Cruz was
    able to partially equip and furnish the offices, although "we still
    need just about everything."

    "A lot of people have helped us: journalists, politicians and
    women=92s groups. Thanks to all of them, this association has emerged, but
    we are still searching for more support, in order to complete our
    dream," said Cruz. (END/2009)

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