Maria Cristina Sosa Schneider

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
This description of Maria Cristina Sosa Schneider's work was prepared when Maria Cristina Sosa Schneider was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Cristina Sosa is promoting women's leadership within and across local human service organizations, starting with the field of child care, and in so doing is transforming human service provision in Uruguay.

The New Idea

Cristina Sosa noticed a profound anomaly in Uruguay's human services that gave birth to her idea: while local staff were predominantly by women, organizational authority was highly centralized and in the hands men. From her rural perspective, she was particularly concerned about the way that policies and practices designed from urban centers for urban realities were applied throughout the countryside, with little room for adjustment to local conditions. Rather than begin a thankless battle against the hierarchy, she created an organization that offered two much-welcomed services to local organizations in the child care field: women's leadership training and a national exchange of information/experience among local human service organizations (something unheard of before Cristina's intervention). As important as the services themselves, Cristina believes, is the "point of view" from which they are offered. Cristina explains, "Working through the common problems of women in social care organizations, we enable them to discover and share new solutions, new actions that they can take–even without 'permission' from Montevideo. This process builds self-esteem and eventually a whole new self-identity of local women–staff and community members–as the key actors in human services. Needless to say, the process has profound implications for the traditional relationship between the state and the local human services providers." The next step for Cristina is to expand on her progress within the child care field and reach out to the wider women's movement, and to other human services fields, such as juvenile care and welfare relief.

The Problem

While the "client community" is principally rural women and children, human services in Uruguay are highly centralized, urban oriented, and male dominated. While women make up the overwhelming majority of human services staff at the local level, they are given little authority, and are expected to function almost as automatons in the service of the central authority. There are few programs to stimulate local staff development, and none that promote women's leadership or the importance and indeed necessity of mobilizing local citizens to assume a more active role in solving human services problems. Local organizations do not learn from each other; in fact, the entire structure of human services in the country actively militates against networking and exchange among local actors.
Given this counterproductive situation, even the most senior officials were forced to take notice, and a reform program was initiated. Tragically, the weak base from which local women operated within the system prevented them from making a decisive input into the reform, which quickly reverted to type and left things effectively unchanged.

The Strategy

Cristina's strategy is to build the capacity and awareness of women working in human services in such a way that they will be able to transform their field in Uruguay. To provide services and ideological orientation, she founded the Paulina Luisi Movement, named after a leader in the struggle for women's suffrage. The Movement has three lines of action: (1) training services for women in local human service organizations and for women's organizations in the interior of the country; (2) deepening the links among the organizations responsible for the management of community day-care centers in the municipalities of which there are 120 throughout the country; and (3) extending this women-driven process within the child care field to other human services fields, and, on the other hand, to the national women's movement.
Increasingly, Cristina is turning her attention to disseminating the Movement's effective "communication and participation" methodology, which she has piloted now for five years in her home region around Melo, in Northwest Uruguay.
In the medium term, she will deepen the relationship among local child care groups, creating new methodologies and promoting an increase in number of participants and regions. In the long run, with common goals already identified, Cristina will propose local projects to gain an influential role in governmental policy. She has one mechanism for policy advocacy already in place through her work with the 500 women from 18 states of the interior who were elected as representatives of the Beijing global women's meeting "Continuation Committee".
One of the core challenges is to increase resources to be administered by local communities to address the critical problems of women and children.

The Person

As the daughter of a military man, Cristina spent her childhood living in different regions in the interior of Uruguay. She came to Montevideo, where she obtained an education degree, and started teaching. There, as a young adult in the 1960s, she participated in student and teacher movements concerned with rural education. Her marriage to a farmer prompted her to return to the rural areas, where she came to understand the complete and total inadequacy of the country's urban-centered human services system. Some years later, she discovered the women's movement, and in so doing, re-discovered the joy of participating in a social movement.
After her divorce, Cristina had to provide for her family. For a number of years, she has managed both her business and the leadership of the Paulina Luisi Movement, which she founded in 1986. Now, with her son able to take over most of the management of the business, and the local activities of the Movement well consolidated, Cristina is shifting her attention to the task of spreading the model.