Lourdes is helping rural women, one of Mexico's hardest pressed and least helped groups, become aware, organize and provide leadership -- initially regarding health, but ultimately more generally.
The New Idea
Lourdes is calling attention to and providing practical solutions for the serious health and education problems facing women in rural Mexico. Important in itself, this work is also an avenue that allows women to develop the self-confidence and income-generating capacity that in turn allows them to take on far wider and more influential roles in rural society and its organizations, traditionally an area left almost entirely to male leadership.
Lourdes, working in the rural areas of Jalisco state, very early after entering a community encourages the mothers to form a village health committee. Others, including men, are welcome; and the groups work with whatever other community groups exist. Women can't learn how to participate equally, let alone lead, in isolation. However, the focus is on helping women develop.
She helps the group get broad, base training that includes literacy, nutrition, and broad-based preventative and curative health care. This knowledge not only gives them an important, compelling agenda, but it gives them the sense of self-confidence with which to take their initiative.
She further builds this confidence by encouraging the more successful women to move on to train other women in turn, both within and beyond their own community. This process strengthens the messengers as much as it helps those they reach.
Lourdes is very conscious of the need to promote a wider awareness of the women's problem. To this end she is getting up a regional network of women's groups in the neighboring states of Colima, Jalisco and Michoacan, which will offer specific training at a local level and more general conferences and seminars at a regional and national level.
The several mutually reinforcing aspects of this approach, she thinks, together can overcome centuries of women being relegated to secondary roles and expected to remain mute. Her program seems to focus on health and adult education, but its ultimate aim is to give rural women a voice and an equal place in community leadership.
Feminists in Mexico have a strong urban bias. And although over the past decade the women's movement has graduated from being a largely middle class, university educated elite, to take in a broader base of women's organizations, these continue to be located mainly in the large industrial centers. Programs for and by rural women tend to be few and far between.
Yet in many ways, the situation of rural women in Mexico is far more critical than that facing their urban counterparts. Mexico's economic crisis has hit the countryside hardest, and the massive exodus of men going both to the cities and across the border to find work has left women responsible for everything in the villages, be it farming or maintenance or bringing up the children.
The effects of this situation on maternal and child health are alarming. To take just the case of child malnutrition: In the cities some 60% of children present some degree of malnutrition. This rises to between 80 and 90% in rural areas, depending on the region. This in turn critically affects the mother's health. The children's health (and education) suffer no less.
Despite this situation, the state health service makes no specific provisions for women's health. Very few of the non-government organizations, either in the health sector or those dealing with rural problems, do so either. Lourdes' program will provide a model for developing a health care service for rural women -- at the same time that it trains and encourages women to break out of their traditionally subordinate roles.
Lourdes' strategy is to bring women together through the formation of health committees so that later she can incorporate them into a wider regional and national women's movement. Although initially she followed a strategy of setting up health groups focussing on curing specific illnesses she soon realized the limitations of such an approach. She subsequently moved towards a strategy of preventative health care and concentrated on training women to train others, avoiding in this way the classical dependency that tends to develop in rural health projects towards the external advisor.
She works with women at different levels. At one level she seeks to strengthen a team of 'natural leaders' giving them the tools to analyze and explain problems to other women so that they can serve as organized leaders. At the same time that she is providing them with such leadership skills, she is also teaching them about cooperation, health, nutrition and alternative technology so that they can in turn transmit this knowledge to smaller groups which they organize.
At another level she works to widen the network of women's groups by organizing meetings and exchanges starting at a local level and building up the regional level and beyond. At this level she is determined to achieve the independence of these groups from either outside advisers or outside finance. A crucial feature of her strategy is the organization of women's brigades to go to other communities. These women go and talk to women in different villages, encourage them to create their own health committees. Finally, at a regional level she brings together diverse women's organizations to reflect on and exchange their different experiences with the different aspects of community health care, development work, and women's issues.
Lourdes is a psychologist who, ever since she was a student, has reached out to understand and serve the less fortunate majority of Mexicans. As a student and in the years after graduation she worked successively with prisoners, indigenous groups, the urban poor, alcoholics, the mentally ill, and women. She also worked with and observed the approaches of several different groups seeking to serve these communities.
After graduating she ultimately took up work with a university team that had as its purpose both rural advancement and providing the university a window that would allow it to make its academic work more relevant. However, she discovered, first that the university's institutional inertia created highly unfertile ground for advice coming from the young team working far away from the campus.
Second, she developed her own, quite independent ideas of how to approach the work. Although she had engaged as a leader in the university team, she increasingly felt both that she would be better off pursuing her own ideas and that she was ready to do so. Elected to Ashoka, she's further developing her approach and, increasingly, is spreading it well beyond the initial for communities where she began her work to the rest of the state and, increasingly, beyond.