Rosario García y Santos has established a national organization that is helping rural women throughout Uruguay enhance their status, improve their quality of life, and find alternatives to urban migration.
The New Idea
Rosario has created the National Association of Groups of Rural Women of Uruguay as a mechanism for uniting women who own small productive enterprises or are seeking new ways to find personal fulfillment amid the uncertainties of rural life. Hoping to break the isolation which has kept rural women silent and divided, she began organizing meetings in which women could discuss their common challenges, share common interests, and learn to value the ways in which their skills complemented each another. As the women began to recognize their own productive capacities–skills they used in farm life but had never used to make money–they wanted to earn income for their families, gain access to credit, and market their products. Rosario decided to bring the women together into a national organization. Despite a skeptical response from friends and colleagues, who cited the individualistic nature of rural Uruguayan society, Rosario persisted and succeeded in making her idea into reality.
Life in rural Uruguay, like elsewhere in Latin Economic and demographic changes are placing ever greater stresses on Uruguay's rural families. The globalization of agriculture has tied the value of farm products to worldwide business cycles and led to wide swings in commodity prices, which have undermined the financial stability of farmers and their families. As elsewhere in Latin America, younger generations see less and less future on the farm, and migrate in large numbers to urban centers. The family becomes scattered in a process of change and disintegration that is especially hard on rural women. As Rosario observes, these women suffer from a triple disadvantage: they are women, they live in rural areas, and they are usually poor. Their vital roles in farming and simply keeping the family together are largely unnoticed, and they suffer from low self-esteem and seem resigned to suffering. Although entrepreneurial women have been forming self-help groups for years, they remain locked within their own communities and realities with little awareness or recognition of the many things they have in common with women outside of their daily orbit. Isolation has limited their ability to access services commonly available to other groups of agricultural producers, or to urban women's groups
In 1994, Rosario founded the National Association of Groups of Rural Women of Uruguay, which in five short years expanded to more than 130 local groups of some fourteen hundred women, in nineteen departments of Uruguay. To develop leadership and establish communication between groups, she divided the association into departmental, regional, and executive councils, each with its own popularly elected representatives. The association launched a series of training sessions to help women develop the skills and knowledge needed to access credit, reach markets, and otherwise maximize the potential of their small enterprises. Of the one hundred thirty groups, ninety-two involve small businesses such as canning, cheese, apiculture, ceramics, and wood-working; the remainder are either still defining their center of action or dedicated to improving community life in areas such as health or education. In 1996, financing from the Ministry of Farming and Agriculture paid for a study to assess training options and identify which could be best adapted to the women's needs. This diagnostic phase also included a national meeting of some four hundred women at which a comprehensive needs assessment was carried out. This led to the development of "integral" training modules focusing on building sets of skills relevant to given areas of production. Between 1998 and 1999, thanks to a partnership with the Ministry of Labor, over three hundred fifty women–ranging from ceramists to canners to weavers–were trained in areas such as production, marketing, and management. The association holds four commercial fairs per year where groups sell their products. It also facilitates partnerships between groups and commercial distributors. In 1999, with support from the embassies of Canada and Great Britain, a US $20,000 revolving loan fund was set up to help seed new initiatives and grow existing ones. Some fifteen groups have benefited from the fund, with a repayment rate of nearly 100 percent. Rosario is now promoting the fund more broadly among the groups, and will explore the possibility of securing additional funding. As word of the association's impact spreads throughout Uruguay, new groups are sprouting up and seeking admission. Steady support, financial and otherwise, from embassies, international organizations, local business, and local and federal government ensures the association's stability and future growth. In addition, because Rosario believes that the women must not take the association's value for granted, each group pays a small monthly "symbolic" support fee. Rosario now plans to focus on expanding the organization nationally, while exploring the possibility of spreading into neighboring Argentina and Brazil. She is also interested in establishing commercial ties with Mercosur exporters and creating a brand name for the association's products.
Unlike the women with whom she now works, Rosario comes from the city. She grew up in Montevideo, but always dreamed of someday marrying a farmer and living off the land. In lieu of the farm, however, Rosario dove into community work, participating in Catholic youth movements from an early age and throughout her university years. She has fond memories of weekends and vacations devoted to community service activities, and she ascribes to these experiences her lifelong commitment to working with the disadvantaged. Among other activities, she remembers helping to set up a carpentry workshop as an income-generating mechanism for former prostitutes. In the end, it was her agronomist–rather than farmer–husband who took the family to live in the country. Rosario found the transition to rural living much more difficult than anticipated. She spent the first few years raising her young children and adjusting to the isolation of country life before starting her veterinary practice in 1986. Contact with rural families enabled her to see the vital role that women play in the stability of the rural family and the community as a whole. She saw that the women often lacked self-confidence and were treated in many cases with less appreciation than the farm animals. Determined to restore their self-esteem and to render visible their talents, Rosario began organizing small meetings where the women could share their experiences and gain strength from one another. Thanks to her vision and untiring leadership, these meetings have grown into a national movement.