María Eugenia Choque, an Aymara woman, is teaching indigenous women how to assume decision-making positions in the resurgent ayllu system of governance in the Bolivian Andes.
The New Idea
María Eugenia Choque is training indigenous women to assume positions of power equal to those of men in the Aymara system of government, called the ayllu. Working through an old system of women's organizations called the Confederation of Women, she creates forums where women learn to help each other speak out and question authority without fear of being ridiculed. María Eugenia teaches them to play soccer in order to learn how to compete and the value of working together. She is finding that women who learn leadership roles in the ayllu maintain their new habits even when their families are forced to migrate to cities during periods of drought or other changes.María Eugenia confronts head-on the macho culture that does not tolerate or value women's participation. Based on her concept that gender roles are learned, she believes that if men and women learn to work together, eventually they can change patterns of inequality. While she trains the women, she also works with the men to help them understand that local government that includes women can be a benefit to the community.
Some researchers, including María Eugenia, are convinced that before the Incas invaded what is now Bolivia, the indigenous Aymara race included its women on a more equal footing with the men in their traditional system of local governance called the ayllu. Land is still held in common and leadership rotated among the families of the ayllu communities. Since the Inca empire and subsequent Spanish conquest, all the Aymara have been subjects in their land. They have faced continuous racial discrimination and have also been pushed aside politically. Many Bolivian communities, beginning in 1952, have marginalized the ayllu local governments by introducing a new official system based on popular vote, political parties and labor unions. During 500 years of colonial domination, the low status of the Aymara has been intensified for the indigenous women, who are subjects not only of the colonizers but also of their own husbands, brothers and fathers. They have suffered physical abuse; they have been almost completely excluded from the political process: they are not represented by the labor unions or political parties and they are excluded from decision making in the ayllu system of government in their own communities. Women are permitted to take leadership positions within the Confederation of Women, but in meetings that involve the whole community, women become silent and sit on the floor while the men sit on chairs and benches. In the Aymara culture, a woman is seen as having identity only in association with a man: men speak for women. This remains true even though many men migrate while the women typically maintain schools and homes and tend to a family's agriculture and grazing and even though there is a high incidence of single mothers with no laws to compel child support. At the end of the day, the decisions are made by a son or uncle or brother, if not a husband. Such a system means that women are in the position of adjusting to decisions that affect them but in which they had no voice. A health center, for example, might be scheduled by the men ayllu leaders to be open during hours that happen to be when all the women are preparing food. Though a better alternative might be obvious, women do not develop the skills to represent themselves alongside men-how to identify a problem, propose a solution, even raise their hands, much less persist in the face of opposition.Recent legal and political developments provide a greater level of support for women and indigenous communities generally. New laws prohibit violence against women and protect their right to own property. Women are directly affected by Bolivia's new Popular Participation Law, under which indigenous groups that are officially recognized, as the Aymara are, have a new level of autonomy to create their own projects and receive government funding directly. However, the task of creating the mechanisms to implement these laws remains. Ashoka Fellow Carlos Mamani has been instrumental in securing political legitimacy for the ayllu and strengthening their political skills. María Eugenia is addressing the obstacles that are specific to women.
María Eugenia began by identifying some 5,000 Aymara women who were good candidates to be potential leaders. They were the women who were already known to be fine weavers or to raise the best sheep. Some owned small businesses or were teachers. They became the core participants in a series of 100 workshops that María Eugenia has conducted with existing women's and neighborhood groups throughout the Altiplano of Bolivia, part of the Confederation of Women. In the workshops she teaches the women to speak up, to question authority and assume leadership within their own groups. She shows them how to nominate each other for positions in the group and how to validate each other's comments and observations during discussion. Then she teaches them how to compete by playing soccer! The qualities that get the ball into the net by passing it to each other all the way down the field carry over into ability to act as a team to reach a political goal.While María Eugenia is preparing the women in the rural farming communities, she also works with the men who are part of the ayllu leadership. She talks to them separately about how their decisions could become more efficient, even easier, with input from the women. Eventually they become willing to invite the women to meet with them. She integrates the prepared women into the ayllu groups: the women raise important issues they want to discuss, often about family and health. If the men ignore them, María Eugenia has trained them to persist; if that fails, she shows them how to use the press and radio as alternative ways to make their voices heard. Their situation is newsworthy in Bolivia, where women have newly emerged in public life in the last ten years and the whole country is assimilating new laws for the protection of women. During 1994 and 1995, violence against women was outlawed and there are attempts under way to pass a law requiring that one-third of all political appointments and party nominations must be women. The discussion of women's rights is alive, stimulated by human rights and women's rights groups.In addition to training women, María Eugenia's workshops are also her method for multiplying her impact. When she finds a successful group of women who work well together and have become effective participants in their ayllu, she sends them into other communities as a model, accompanied when possible by a few men who have learned how to work with women in decision-making discussions. New workshops spread the training and educate women in their rights and their history, using the group oral-tradition methods that are part of their culture. The model has spread throughout Bolivia's altiplano and is replicable in ayllu communities throughout the Andes and the old Inca Empire.If current trends continue, it is estimated that within five years a civil society of more than 50,000 people in the Andean region will live under ayllu governance.
As an indigenous Aymara women, María Eugenia has witnessed and experienced first-hand discrimination from many levels of society and the education system of Bolivia. Her parents did not read or write and she did not grow up with books in the house. All of her education was in Spanish, but at home her family only spoke Aymara. She still remembers the ordeal of writing her thesis at the university, thinking in Aymara while writing in Spanish. In the 1950s the family migrated to the city and María Eugenia's mother worked in a factory where she became part of the labor movement. This led to problems with her father, who worked in the house. Both of her parents insisted that she study and they also insisted that she dress in the clothes of the teachers, not allowing her to wear traditional dress. While in high school, María Eugenia decided to become a nun. The nuns told her that her mother would have to get rid of her indigenous dress and customs if María Eugenia was to pass as a nun. The majority of the students in the school were white and the children with indigenous names sat in the back of the room. Eventually she left the school. Her studies and experiences during the process of acquiring a master's degree in Andean history have only confirmed and intensified her beliefs that indigenous women's status must be raised in Bolivia and elsewhere. During the last ten years, she has published twenty articles in various professional journals, magazines and newspapers on various subjects, mainly focusing on indigenous women and politics. As a licensed social worker, she has seen the effect that marginalizing indigenous women has had on families and communities. She has participated in or been a guest speaker at over twenty fora, workshops and television programs on a variety of subjects over the past twelve years. She was first an investigator and later the director of the Andean Oral History Workshop.