Sonia Andrade helps senior citizens reclaim their traditional social status through legal reform, public advocacy, and intergenerational business ventures. She is narrowing the generation gap by encouraging the young and old to work together, learn from each other, and jointly solve common problems, such as unemployment.
The New Idea
Sonia is helping Ecuador understand, articulate, and address the needs of senior citizens. Sonia creatively applies the proven tactics of human rights advocacy–grassroots organizing, publicity campaigns, legal reform, overhaul of social welfare, and international law–to this integral but previously ignored segment of society. Sonia rejects standard charity work, in which the elderly are mere beneficiaries of individual or collective largesse, and embraces instead, a participatory, activist style in which elderly people themselves lead a public campaign to establish and protect basic human rights. Sonia organizes young and old people to challenge conventional attitudes about senior citizens' needs, abilities, and overall role in society. Her goal is to narrow the generation gap by helping start joint business ventures, addressing some of each group's basic needs, and exposing young Ecuadorians to issues they will face later in life.
About 7 percent of Ecuador's twelve million people are sixty-five or older. These eight hundred seventy thousand Ecuadorians are suffering from the changing economy, values, and culture of modern Latin America, and their plight highlights weaknesses in important social sytems: law enforcement, health care, and public participation. In pre-Hispanic society and even colonial times, older people were respected and had authority. There was no such thing as abandoned elderly. So-called progress has marginalized the elderly. Women who traditionally fulfilled the roles of tending to children and elders have penetrated the labor market and taken on new roles within the family that have forced them to totally or partially abandon those functions. As a result, a situation has arisen that is very cruel for older people. In Ecuador, this cruelty has a tangible impact on daily life. Con-men and dishonest organizations take advantage of the elderly, cheating them out of property and setting up fake charities that steal or sell off donations solicited in their name. Bus drivers refuse to pick up elderly passengers, knowing that senior citizens do not pay full fare. Though law prohibits such blatant abuse, wrongdoers are seldom punished and most human rights organizations neglect these problems. Compounding such acts of individual abuse is an overall structural neglect that ignores the needs of senior citizens. Only 12 percent of Ecuador's seniors receive a pension and only 20 percent have easy access to health care. It is estimated that one senior citizen in ten is a beggar. Though many of Ecuador's aging citizens can still work, anti-elderly sentiments and a lack of modern job skills and training programs keep most from becoming employed. Furthermore, neglected and abandoned older people may suffer from extreme loneliness.
In 1989, Sonia founded the Coordinadora Nacional de los Movimientos Sociales de la Tercera Edad del Ecuador, or CONAMOSOTEE, to heighten awareness of issues facing senior citizens. First Sonia founded a seniors' group, then, along with a team of one hundred fifty elderly volunteers including retired lawyers, businesspeople, and social workers, built a network of affiliate organizations working on local and national issues. Sonia has established local affiliate organizations in major cities throughout Ecuador and she plans to create an affiliate program in each of its twenty-one provinces. Currently, eighteen affiliates gather the elderly to discuss problems, such as poor health care and unemployment, and suggest solutions. Members present their proposals to local governments and demand enforcement of existing laws. An affiliate in the city of Ibarra successfully established an Office for the Elderly within the public defender's office. As a result of Sonia's efforts, all provincial public defenders will soon follow suit. Complementing these local measures, CONAMOSOTEE affiliates across Ecuador join forces to address issues of national importance. The network's cumulative power raises senior citizens' voice to address major changes in social services and propose constitutional reform. In 1997, Sonia put together a forum called The Elderly Speak, at which more than three hundred older people from throughout the country analyzed and critiqued how public institutions serve the aged. They presented the National Assembly with suggestions for major legal reform, including protection for the homeless elderly, a 50 percent discount on health care, and provision for hospitalization for all people over sixty-five. Moreover, they recommended that the government create a special commission to sanction those who violate seniors' rights. As Congress considers whether to turn these proposals into law, Sonia is guiding the network to maintain pressure through a campaign of letters, marches, and demonstrations. These maintain public awareness of events in Congress and link Sonia's national campaign to the international human rights movement. Sonia wrote and distributed a pamphlet that exposes the gaps in Ecuador's compliance with United Nations treaties on the rights of the elderly. Furthermore, she worked with the Post Office to create four postage stamps celebrating 1999 as the United Nations' International Year of the Elderly. CONAMOSOTEE, in cooperation with several other institutions, organized and held the First International Congress for Human Rights of the Elderly in October 2000. Indeed, the UN publicly recognized CONAMOSOTEE for its efforts to promote the Year of the Elderly, making it the only Ecuadorian organization to win this honor.Although the law has not yet been passed, Sonia's work is already affecting policy. The Commission on Women and Families has now created a Sub-commission on the Elderly. Another part of the campaign, Ollas Comunes para la Esperanza, or Shared Cooking-Pots for Hope, a program in which citizens of all generations share a meal to show solidarity with the poor, earned praise from Ecuador's President. These public successes led the Sub-commission to invite CONAMOSOTEE to help create communal dining rooms run by and for the elderly. Moreover, Sonia was invited to be Civil Society Coordinator for the Elderly in Ecuador's National Human Rights Plan.In addition to these legal and structural reforms, Sonia and CONAMOSOTEE are addressing the state of age relations in Ecuadorian culture. Sonia hopes to rebuild meaningful relationships between the young and old and to encourage younger people to find ways to make their own old age a healthy, dignified, and enjoyable time of life. To attract young participants, she hosts concerts by popular musicians, requiring accompaniment by a senior citizen to attend. After a performance, the audience exchanges ideas on issues facing each generation. Sonia is also creating intergenerationist businesses that draw on local business acumen throughout Ecuador. She has worked with a community of Shuar indigenous people in eastern Ecuador to establish a tourism company. Young people manage the business, adults cook and oversee project maintenance, and elders use their expert local knowledge to guide tours. Sonia intends to expand the intergenerational component of sustainable business through Partners of the Americas, of which CONAMOSOTEE is a member.
Sonia is the youngest of ten children in her family. Always close to her parents, she continues to live with her eighty-six year old mother. When Sonia was a teenager, her father suddenly became ill and had to be cared for by her family network. At that moment, Sonia realized that older people without concerned families must suffer greatly. From that point on she has dedicated her life to helping the elderly. Sonia left a university job and returned to Ibarra to take care of her aging parents during the 1990s. She met older people on the streets, talked to them about their needs, and opened her house as a place where they could enjoy each other's company and receive a hot meal. Sonia began to see more of the abuses senior citizens face daily. Her deep concern led her to start organizing groups of elderly people and younger people in Quito to discuss their rights and to motivate them to take action. For the last ten years, despite financial hardship of her own, she has continued to work alongside the elderly.