María del Carmen Tene
This profile was prepared when María del Carmen Tene was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995.
The New Idea
Working within their oral traditions and focusing on the unthreatening subject of health care, Carmen Tene is helping the indigenous women of Ecuador to become full and equal citizens in their households and their country. They are the descendants of a variety of Indian races whom the Incas relocated in the course of establishing an empire in the fifteenth century. Unlike the Aymara women of the high Andes, they have not had a tradition of meeting together, nor have they experienced the bonding and empowerment that women of other Latin American countries have developed by participating in twentieth-century land reform movements. For these women, coming together to meet in groups was a new pattern, which Carmen Tene saw as a natural setting for them to begin to speak.Carmen's groups have provided a safe place for indigenous women to articulate and collect their cultural memory, a place to integrate traditional solutions and modern problems. Together the women study their own identity, a research usually done, if at all, by academic or citizens' organizations from outside. In order to overcome the male controls that have isolated them within their homes, Carmen has organized the women's centers around traditional healing practices, providing a process where the society's most systemically excluded citizens can empower themselves together. Carmen's work grows out of her concept of citizenship: that it is not possible to participate in the development of civil society unless one possesses a voice and the confidence that it will be heard. As she has put it, "My objective has been since the beginning that women should organize in all fields in the community, at the base and in all the different provinces. The idea is that they can express their thoughts and feelings and that they can take those thoughts and feelings and present them as proposals."