“We women can do this ourselves.”
“They told us we were troublemakers,” says Angélica. She is a co-founder of Agua y Vida: Mujeres, Derechos y Ambiente (Water and Life: Women, Rights and Environment), a group in the Chiapas state of Mexico supported by Mama Cash. “In the beginning we were part of a mixed-gender organisation that worked on food sovereignty, organic agriculture and the construction of water collection systems. But the men wouldn’t let us participate fully and so we couldn’t make use of our knowledge. They wanted to make decisions on things that mainly concern women – like water use – without including us in the conversation. Since it's the men who hold the land titles here, they always want the women to sit still and stay quiet.”
The anger and indignation that Angélica and her companions felt about this injustice eventually led to them leaving the organisation. “One day we were sitting under a tree with other Indigenous women, looking on as the men built a reinforced concrete tank for collecting rainwater," Angélica explains. "We saw some men struggling to weave wire mesh for the tank using a hook, while at the same time some of the Indigenous women were skilfully embroidering with needles and thread. That’s when we saw the analogy and realised: we women can do this ourselves!”
So they convinced the men to let them build a concrete tank, and this successful construction was followed by others. After assessing that there was sufficient interest among women in the surrounding communities, Agua y Vida was created in 2009: an organisation by and for indigenous, migrant and black women. “We realised that we too could use appropriate technologies, not just to build concrete tanks, but also things like wood-saving stoves.” Now it's women who handle the whole construction process: straining the sand, mixing the cement, and carrying out the construction; and this makes them feel powerful, strong and independent.
Heroes of their own stories
Being able to organise and transform their realities has changed the role of women in these Chiapas communities. They are now respected and valued, and they feel more secure in defending their right to participate in the community. Angélica and her colleagues are very proud of these results, although they also acknowledge that the road has been paved with challenges.
“We realised that the violence experienced by women goes hand-in-hand with the destruction of nature, land and territories.”
“When we began to work on environmental rights and eco-feminist permaculture, peasant and Indigenous women would join the workshops full of curiosity and concern. They were eager to share their feelings, and wanted to talk about how they were being excluded and the various forms of violence they were experiencing," explains Norma, one of the other co-founders. “When we talked about the sexual division of labour, we realised that we women are the ones who sustain life and work more, yet we have fewer rights. We explored patriarchy and its relationship with capitalism and racism. We realised that the violence experienced by women goes hand-in-hand with the destruction of nature, land and territories.”
Thanks to the workshops organised by Agua y Vida, women started to see themselves as social subjects, as the heroes of their own personal and collective stories. Together they developed confidence and comradery, and created a powerful force to continue the fight. Seeing that the vast majority of them had experienced exclusion and violence, women from the communities concluded that the problem was social and political, and that confronting it would require getting organised and acting collectively. “They realised that they would not be able to transform the situation acting alone, individually,” adds Angélica.
The ideal situation
Agua y Vida has enabled the creation of a network of care, understanding, solidarity, comradery and protection among women in the communities. “In this way, we keep our hope and expectations for the struggle on several fronts alive, and feel that we are coming closer to our ideal situation."
And what is that ideal situation? “The ideal situation would be for women in the communities to live in peace and in health, and to experience happiness, security, and dignity in their ancestral territories," Angélica replies. “This would also entail full access to water, land and native seeds, and the active participation and recognition in community government systems. Furthermore, local cooperatives would be boosted by adopting a fair trade approach between women: bartering, not from a capitalist perspective, but from the perspective of feminist economics.”
Thanks to the support of Mama Cash, the women of Agua y Vida feel that they are getting closer and closer to achieving this ideal. “The funding allows us to rent better spaces that are more suitable for our workshops, and to pay for lodging and transportation so that more community women can attend the workshops and meet women from other Indigenous communities and ethnicities. This enables the building of bonds, alliances and comradery between women.”
What's more, thanks to this economic support, Agua y Vida has been able to make the situation and the struggles of women in the communities more visible through documentary videos showcasing environmental defenders. They have also created teaching materials and a new website that positions them as a critical eco-feminist organisation committed to fighting for women's rights to water, land and territory as well as to health, food and work.
“It’s the sort of recognition that strengthens us and helps position us to reach many more women.”
“But what transcends the financial aspect,” concludes Angélica, “is the fact that a fund by and for women believed in us, valued our work, and kept such an understanding line of communication open with us. That encourages us and propels us forward. It’s the sort of recognition that strengthens us, makes us happy, and helps position us to reach many more women.”