*Sylvia van Dijk

Non-formal education for women during the twenty-first century can be traced back to the suffragist efforts that took place at the beginning of the century in many Latin American countries. Another significant theme at the beginning of the century was the introduction of the first birth control methods that gave women an alternative to reproduction. Both movements began with strength but were soon quenched by society. Twenty and fifty years later for each movement respectively, they were able to flourish in some Latin American societies while in others it took longer.

Throughout the whole century women have sometimes been the agents and other times the objects of educational efforts. Non-formal education has been directed toward bettering women's lives and/or providing opportunities for their social, political and/or economic participation. This chapter will be limited to providing an overview of the different movements that have been developed in the last 20 years in the field of popular education for and with women, facilitated by the nongovernmental organizations in Latin America.

First, I will try to situate popular education overall. I will then focus on women's specific interests in gender within social movements analyze what themes and projects have been developed in educational and organizational practices with women describe the protagonists of these processes, the popular educators, and the obstacles encountered; and finally, I will describe the enormous challenges that we face in the decades ahead, defining the moment that we live today.

Popular Education

At the end of the 1950s, changes in economic and socio-political structures in Latin American countries uncovered the problems these structures have with integrating large sectors of the population into the newly developing modern economies. When the causes of these difficulties are analyzed, it is generally concluded that these are backward and marginalized sectors that cannot be incorporated into the growing economies. Through governmental action, various forms of compensatory education for the poor and the marginalized have been created, outreach activities of a cultural and educational nature have been developed, and all kinds of development programs have been introduced as part of a strategy that was called "The Alliance for Progress."

Toward the 1960s, an educational model emerged as an alternative to the existing dominant models: popular education. This educational mode started with a critique of the banking model of education and also began to question the development model by taking into account the perspectives of the poor and the oppressed.

Almost 40 years later, we find ourselves faced with the same problem, and it has become much more serious because of the growing distance between those who have and those who do not, because of the alarming deterioration of natural resources that threatens the survival of those who depend on them, because of the demographic explosion, and because of the discouragement of the popular sectors for whom the current structures preclude the possibility of a dignified existence. Neither the governments' solution, nor the alternative contributions have managed to have a sufficient impact to buttress the negative effects of the existing development model. In real terms, the opportunities for a dignified survival of the popular sectors have decreased. According to UNICEF, in Latin America 130 million people live in a state of extreme poverty (1989). The real reason for such a high figure is that there is no political will to change structures or economic and socio-political models to resolve these problems.

In this context, popular education serves the needs, interests and demands of the popular sectors and their common historic project. These characteristics are found in all the alternative educational models that seek to change the lives of the poorest social groups for the better.

Popular educators have difficulty involving themselves in the alternative educational proposals without a clear economic, political, and social model. However, their insertion into the struggle for survival of the oppressed groups has given them very valuable cumulative experiences. Popular educators have learned to listen, to encourage participation and the sharing of ideas from the groups with whom they work. They have managed to understand the importance of creating spaces for discussion and of creating the groups' own identity. They have been successful at combining their learning processes with everyday practice. They have contributed to creating new horizontal relationships that are less prejudiced and more open to the acceptance of differences among individuals. Finally, it is crucial to mention that popular educators have participated significantly in the brave processes of democratization that are rocking all of Latin America.

In these processes, important groups within these popular sectors have learned to understand how decision-making takes place in their community, state, and country; to be conscious of the historical processes being experienced; to understand the existence of human rights; to involve themselves in the construction of a utopia; to express their opinion in public; to make decisions by consensus; to resolve conflicts through words and reason; and to participate in the struggle to improve their own lives. This knowledge and these abilities have permitted the dominated sectors to initiate wider and more committed social and political participation.

In sum, popular educators have been submerged in a fascinating and continuous learning process, one of discovery and of cultural re-creation, together with the popular sectors with which they participate.

Among the popular educators there is a large number of women. What has been their contribution?

The Emergence of Women as Subject and Actor
in a Wide Social Movement

Since the Decade of the Women (1976-1985), established by the United Nations, the theme of women has emerged in the discussions of wide sectors of society. For the discussion to reach an international platform, it was necessary for many women activists, as well as scholars of woman's condition, to work on the topic and propel it into the public sphere.

As is always the case, relations of subordination and oppression are not experienced consciously during everyday life, until something happens that poses questions that cannot be answered routinely. The conscious awakening to the fact that women are historically a group dominated by a social system has been slow. To discover that women have been assigned a certain role with social, political, and economic responsibilities has been an intellectual conquest of the twenty-first century. Now women know that they have been entrusted with the physical, social, and ideological reproduction of their societies, but with that burden of responsibility they have seen themselves confined to the private spheres that isolate them from public life and keep them in a position subordinate to men.

Men have had the responsibility of providing sustenance, and, with it, the responsibility of participating in the decision-making process in the public sphere. In Latin-American societies, politics and the economy have been arenas dominated by men. This continues today, though there are important changes that are modifying family structures and traditionally established roles.

At the same time, since the beginning of the 1960s, the studies that have appeared on women of the rural and popular sectors show that women are the poorest among the poor, that women assume the ultimate responsibility for the survival of the family, that women are abandoned when men cannot face the frustration of being unable to provide sustenance for their families, that women are the "spinal cord" of the popular-urban movements, that women are more responsible in their social duties once they assume them, that they pay their debts in a more timely fashion than men, and that they are chambeadoras (hard workers) when it comes to introducing services into the communities.

These social phenomena helped women to wake up to their self- interest and to raise among women of the middle- and upper-class sectors an interest in the women of the popular sectors. Little by little, the social movements that timidly appeared on the scene in the 1920s and 1930s proclaiming women's right to participate in the political life of Latin American countries and to regulate their own fertility have today become a widely recognized movement involved in social change. Immersed in this wide movement, popular educators have played and continue to play a major role.

The Perspective of Women in Popular Education

Popular education, with its sensibility toward subordinated groups, soon showed women the daily contradictions of their condition as women. Many women educators who began participating in social movements that sought more social justice and who found themselves working double and triple shifts, encountered difficulties such as not being listened to, being silenced by their male counterparts in assemblies, and not having the space to discuss their needs as women. These needs included such issues as child care and making decisions about the number of children they wished to have.

At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, the first nongovernmental institutions for women emerged. Their main social objective was to further the process of female emancipation, thereby contributing to women's liberation and the establishment of women as social agents. Different groups of women began their analysis and eagerly read all the studies about women produced in the United States and Europe, including them, classical feminist studies such as those by Roberta Hamilton, Margaret Mead, Evelyn Read, and Sheila Rowbotham. They soon benefited also from contributions from Latin American scholars such as Josefina de Aranda, Lourdes Arizpe, Teresita de Barbieri, Marcela Lagarde, Marta Lamas, and Magdalena Leon, among others.

The women of these groups began an interesting process of self- eflection, skill development, and educational, social, and political practices with rural women and, in a larger capacity, with neighboring women living in the poverty belts of the large Latin American cities.

The nongovernmental organizations developed various ideological models and diverse practices in their daily endeavors. There are two extremes within which a large number of the groups move:

a) Those that seek the origin of the problem in the patriarchal social system that emerges from the biological differences between men and women. Their explanation is that women, because of their physical reproductive skills, are in a vulnerable situation during all the years in which they fulfill that function and, as a result, remain confined to the care of children and home, while men go out to confront the world and provide sustenance. Those who hold this view call themselves feminists and see the solution in the work of popular education of women, focusing on an analysis of patriarchy and its daily manifestations. The implicit assumption is that the oppressors are men and we must find ways to force them to cede their privileges and assume equal responsibility with women.

b) Those that seek the origin of the problem in the economic capitalist system with its foundation built on private property, making possible and necessary the exploitation of differences between men and women. These women find it difficult to call themselves feminists and prefer to call themselves socialists. They push for equal work for men and women and seek ways to overcome the confinements of women that are attached to private property. The implicit assumption of this ideological model is that, having overcome the social injustices, women will automatically achieve a dignified and equal place with men.

Both ideologies confront many difficulties in developing their work. The first finds itself encased in internal contradictions. On one side is the needed affection of a partner and a satisfactory relationship with a man; on the other side, these needs are undermined by the conceptualization of him as the "enemy." This ideology results in many broken marriages, frustrated affection, and poor management of conflict within the family and in the communities.

Socialist women see themselves frequently immersed in serious problems with their partners who do not help them assume the responsibilities of the home and with their children, and find it difficult to obtain respect for their convictions. Also, there has been little understanding of the limitations of women in the popular sectors who, because of their domestic chores, find it difficult to involve themselves in social projects and to comprehend fully many of the daily incidents taking place at home and within the community.

Most groups move within both of these two ideologies, combining class analysis with the analysis of patriarchy. Each group in its own way has begun to find alternatives to the difficulties that their own process of emancipation was giving them. The discovery of the gender perspective has been a long and winding road, without any blanket responses; a re-discovery by women of themselves, in continuous confrontation with everyday realities of the individual and the group.

All the popular educators found themselves confronted with the challenge of developing new working methodologies and ways of approaching and understanding their own situations and those of the women with whom they worked.

The gender perspective is a new element that has been introduced into the analysis of reality. In the educational strategies that contemplate the well-known practice of action-reflection, the analysis of reality is crucial. This analysis is generally made within the participants' subjectivity and it is within this dynamic that it is important to present questions that allow us to approach women's daily reality, where their condition is produced and reproduced, and which determines their existence both socially and culturally.

Women's organizations have gone through various phases in their work, and throughout the years have specialized in some areas which have been enriched by the contribution of women. They have achieved significant advances when they have worked with a clear gender perspective, that is, with contributions of both men and women at equal levels and elucidating their own perspective.

Spheres of Work in Which the Perspective of Women
has had Significant Development


Among popular educators, an important area in which to understand women's perspective was, and still is, that of health. Women that live in poverty are constantly suffering health problems. Bad nutrition, too much work, lack of rest and recreation, domestic violence, and continuous pregnancies (many times unwanted) with their respective lactation periods, are among the causes of the sicknesses and sufferings of women. These situations have a direct relationship with the biological, cultural, and social condition of women.

Workshops on nutrition and health have provided a legitimate space for women to meet. Women learn knowledge useful for themselves and for their families. However, the most important aspect of this work is not the transmission of techniques, practices, and knowledge (although there is great value in these) but in the woman's analysis of reality, conducted in such a way that it rescues the women's experience. The analysis of what women contribute to the well-being of their families in everyday life allows self-knowledge, which is followed by processes of valuing the self and of self-esteem.

For many women, an understanding of their own bodies is a facinating discovery. They learn what they are physically, what they feel, want, and hope, what they like, and what they don't like. Their everyday life never allows them that space. For the majority of rural women, life is an interminable sequence of obligations starting at a very early age, and because of this, situations of overwork, violence, and abuse are assumed without question. Once the possibility is open to women to respect themselves, a basis for initiating a positive change in their lives is formed. These transformations also involve their partners, sons, and daughters.

The various women's groups have had different focal points in the transformation: How to force the enemy to change; or how to involve the partner in changes that include lost privileges? Reflecting on what it is that the partner can gain in exchange for the loss is crucial if we do not want to fall into conflict or the inversion of dominant roles.

Another element that women have learned in this context is the need to communicate. Popular cultures are, in general, cultures of silence. There is thus a need to acquire the skill to talk about feelings, ideas, hopes, and of what is bothering them. In working with women's groups, it has been discovered that domestic violence is a reflection of the lack of skill in communicatig wiht loved ones; that it is women who introduce these patterns of conduct with their child-rearing methods. Instead of using words to resolve discipline problems, lack of obedience, and transgressions, they correct a child by hitting. The implicit message to the children is: "because I love you, and I care what you do, I hit you." This lesson is well learned by boys, and they apply it as adults to their female partners, girlfriends, and wives. The women, in turn, reproduce it with their own sons and daughters.

With respect to the theme of health and sexuality, the gender perspective has led educators to approach these issues with men. If it is the social and cultural identity that is being worked on, or topics of the relationship between partners from the women's perspective that are being approached, it has been found that there is also a need to work with the social and cultural identity of men and with relationships from the men's perspective. It is through these educational practices that a better understanding by women of themselves and by men of themselves has also been achieved.

This process is conducive to a better mutual understanding, and to opening the dialogue for construction new social relationships between the genders. This way of working with the gender perspective is very new; as recently as 1993 a publication came out recording the experience of a gender workshop for men. There are still very few experiences of this kind today.

Maternity is another health issue. Pre-natal, birth, and post-partum care, and campaigns launched for risk-free pregnancies are typically transmitted by doctors, midwives, and other health workers. In addition to the need for technical knowledge, popular education believes that it is also necessary to work with the subjectivity of the pregnant woman: How does she feel about her pregnancy? How does she share her pregnancy with her partner, if she has one? How does she experience it with her other children, if there are any? Where does she want to have the birth? Who does she want with her during the birth? What kind of medical attention does she prefer? What kind of care does she want and who does she want to care for her after the birth? All of these are crucial questions. Voluntary maternity, decision-making concerning birth control, and the interruption of an unwanted pregnancy are themes that are addressed in this context that have mobilized large groups of women against illegal abortion. Contraception and abortion are the more controversial topics in the health field because of their political implications and because of the enormous constraints make by the Catholic Church in this respect. For many groups of women the recent recognition expressed at the World Conference on Population in Cairo (1994) that abortion is a public health problem instead of a crime is a small but significant advancement in their struggles.

Income-Generating Projects

A second very general sphere of work in popular education is the "Productive Projects" with women. When women discover that all the projects on economic development are directed exclusively toward men, their interest in participating in this area is considerable. Experience has shown that it is very beneficial to engage in productive projects with women because they carry out the work better, are more responsible, and use their income to benefit the quality of life of their families among other reasons. However, many of these projects have failed to include the perspective of women. If we do not analyze daily work loads of women, if we do not reflect on the relationships between women and money, women and the market, women and the productive processes in which they are included, it is easy to fall into the masculinization of work relations and simply require that women adapt themselves, without contributing critically, to the relationship to production. This masculinization of women who approach traditionally male-occupied spheres has been a common phenomenon in the dominant sectors of the economy. This occurs when women accede to management positions in the private sector, leadership positions in political parties, and high-level positions of public administration.

Many projects with women on production have used mechanisms from the informal economy, a sector which was generated by women. Interesting examples of micro-business, communal banks, and savings institutions have emerged. In the credit and savings industry, there are few enterprises with women, although they do exist. A pioneer in productive projects for women is FINCA (Foundation for International Community Assistance), which manages an interesting framework of credit and skills development to allow women to create their own micro-businesses.

In these projects, it is important to reflect on the change that is taking place at a general level concerning economic responsibility toward the family. If the woman contributes with the man to attain economic solvency and the fulfillment of the family's economic needs, it is crucial that the man collaborate with the woman in order to guarantee the necessary domestic infrastructure needed for daily life. This kind of cooperation can transcend the family sphere and be taken up by the community and society in general. It is important that work conditions for men and women allow adequate time for them to assume home chores in an equitable way. Unfortunately, there has been no advance in this field, even though the number of women involved in productive activities is growing. A clear gender perspective needs to be developed for these productive projects that can facilitate equitable conditions for men and women.

Services for Basic Needs

A third area that has been developed with women is the "Struggle for Services," both in urban neighborhoods and in rural communities. Meeting basic needs in neighborhoods has been the catalyst for the social organization of urban-popular movements. Its development was already quite advanced when discussion of gender began among the popular educators. It was already recognized that women had been the most tenacious negotiators for regulating land use, for obtaining potable water and electricity, and for introducing markets, schools, and health centers. However, few groups managed to analyze their struggle from a gender perspective. In fact, the majority of the leaders in these movements were men, even though--and without their being conscious of it--they were representing mostly women. Women have justified their lack of participation as leaders by pointing out that men had less flexibility in their jobs and that being absenteeism from a full-time job can result in job dismissal. Also, they are aware that authorities frequently take the movement more seriously if it is represented by a male leader.

The lack of analysis from a gender perspective had unfortunate consequences. For example, the legally recognized land and housing usually resulted in deeds being written in the name of the male head of the household. Also, when women had to comply with the commitments of the organization, they would leave their older daughters in charge of the rest of the children, sacrificing primary education for many of them. Political parties, which in their majority are led by men, used and manipulated women, and it took many years for local authorities to learn to negotiate with women and to take them seriously.

Women are now struggling for services that adequately respond to childcare and health concerns. Women learned the skills needed to care for children from birth through five years of age when they created neighborhood preschool centers. They thereby solved the problem of how to care for their small children without sacrificing their older daughters. Through collective action, women found solutions for caring for the smallest children of the community, for feeding them balanced and nutritious meals, for washing clothes, and for creating recreational space. The women's initiatives have evolved into matters that involve the decisions of authorities, public spending, urban planning, and municipal councils. Municipalities must then elevate them to the state and national levels.

It is interesting to observe how the physical aspect of the community begins to change when the centers for child development, popular kitchens, basic grocery stores, and parks for children are created and managed by women. These advances allow women to accede to the job market under less advantaged conditions. Opportunities must now be created for men to help educate and raise their children, as well as to perform household chores. Women will then achieve equality in the social struggle and will contribute to their own development, by learning to share traditionally female domestic spheres with men. It is necessary to have a sphere in which men and women contribute from their own perspective.

Another example of the struggle for services emerged when women created the "communal pots" (ollas comunes) in Chile, the "glass of milk" (el vaso de leche) in Peru, the "basic basket" (canastas básicas) and the "popular kitchens" (cocinas populares) in Mexico. All these initiatives respond to the nutritional needs of families that live in poverty. They are collective efforts to eliminate infant malnutrition. Aside from the fact that women acquire basic knowledge of nutrition and food, these projects transcend the community and enter the political sphere. In all these countries, calculations were made to find out if the minimum salary guaranteed the nourishment of the family. Women mobilized to go out in the street and publicly denounce the economic policies of their countries as having been a barrier to fulfilling the most basic of human rights--nutrition. Also, the majority of the women involved have understood that all these projects are compensatory measures to counter the negative effects of the policies of structural adjustment enforced by the neo-liberal governments of the last decades.

The Literacy Campaign

Promoting literacy is another popular education effort that has recently been targeting women. In the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico primers have been developed that allow illiterate women to analyze their condition as women while learning how to read and write. This work recaptures the method of the generative word and dialogue (inspired in Freirean approaches). Taking as a point of departure the use of the generative word, it is possible to examine their sociopolitical reality.

In the Mexican primer, the word "potato" allows women to analyze the role of rural women in the activities they perform outside the home; the word "soup" is used to refer to the activities they perform within the home; the word "corn stalk" prompts discussion of women's participation in agricultural production and the right of women to own a piece of land. Experiences have shown these methods to be enriching not only because women increase their self-esteem by improving their reading and writing skills, but also because they are encouraged to reflect upon their condition as women.

These initiatives have been supported by the nongovernmental organizations funded by international organizations. Unfortunately, Latin American governments historically have not given much needed systematic and formal attention to illiterate women as a group different from men and youth. People who have promoted these literacy primers are almost all women that belong to nongovernmental institutions or community religious groups, most notably the Ecclesiastical Base Communities (Comunidades Eclesiásticas de Base).

The literacy teachers are always women who have been trained to use the primers. With the help of the primers and the teachers' manuals that describe the methodology in detail, it is possible for a literate person to become a literacy teacher. In the Mexican experience, the literacy teachers or promoters have been religious people, health and social workers, and young people from rural organizations of women. In the experiences of the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua, male and female teachers from the formal teaching system also participated.

Work Conditions

Work conditions for women laborers and domestic workers has also been an important topic in popular education. The women involved have benefitted from their exposure to gender analysis. They have seen themselves strengthened in their struggle for equal salary and equal work and also in the validation of their right not to lose their job when they assume their reproductive role. They have struggled for maternity leave, the right to breastfeed during work hours, and for day care during work hours.

It has been enlightening to see the progress that domestic workers have made in Latin America, even though their capacity to involve a significant number of domestic workers in their respective countries has been very limited. In the majority of the countries, most efforts have taken the form of pilot projects that have reached only a few people, but have developed very good qualitative processes.

Innovative projects have also been developed between the maquiladoras in the north of Mexico, unions such as subway union of Mexico City, and the seamstresses who were victims of the 1986 earthquake in Mexico City. All of these projects have struggled so that women can obtain pay equal to that of their male counterparts so they are not discriminated against during promotions, and so they are not forced to take contraceptives to avoid pregnancy. They have also managed to examine the work conditions necessary for them to fulfill their responsibility as mothers as well as their productive roles. However, they have not managed to produce better working conditions for women. Most worker movements in the continent have been dominated by men and have tended to be very corrupt; moreover, these groups have been badly beaten by the majority of the neo-liberal governments. Hence, there has been limited progress in understanding the gender dimension in the workplace.

Women's Theology

Through the Ecclesiastical Base Communities, Catholics have made a commitment to the process of popular education. A significant number of nuns participate in these groups, and many of them have approached theology from the women's point of view and have been involved in processes to renovate their relationship with the Church and with God from their own perspective. Women examine patriarchy within the Church and the management of power and they re-create a direct relationship with God. These women do not separate themselves from their Christian roots; on the contrary, they re-create them from the perspective of women. Women who are committed to the popular sectors and personally experience the richness that the spiritual dimension gives them, have decided to confront and challenge patriarchal theological practice. Themes that have been approached by these women are: experiences with women concerning spirituality and their experiences with God; the sexual morality of the Church--the need to revise it and take sexuality out of the realm of the taboo--and the Church hierarchy and their inability to accede to it as men do.

The discussions and the analyses are always accompanied by references to the Bible. They also examine how some key people in the Church have allowed their own prejudices against women to prevail, establishing the patriarchal nature of the clergy, as was the case with Thomas Aquinas.

A strong movement named Catholics for Free Choice has evolved from the secular Christian groups. These women have assumed individual ownership of their body and support each other in decisions regarding the number of children they want, the birth control method of their choice, and what to do in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. This movement has support throughout the Latin American continent; it is also backed by women's groups in the two countries to the north: the United States and Canada.


Violence against women in the home, in the streets, or at work is another sphere of work and activism for many educators. In almost all of the countries, there is at least one nongovernmental organization that lends help to women who are physically abused and/or victims of rape, and that works with them to achieve psychological rehabilitation. Almost all of these groups develop educational campaigns against domestic violence and train women, if they so desire, to defend themselves from all kinds of aggression ranging from compliments with sexual overtones to rape. In many countries there has also been a struggle to transform the penal code to include a more severe punishment for those who commit these aggressions and to simplify procedures for the victims. Some groups have also taught courses for judges. There are also some that specialize in supporting and training women to defend themselves from sexual harassment in the workplace.

For example, there is the Mexican case of a national network against violence that emerged after the Sixth Latin-American Feminist Encounter in October 1989. This group has established that women who are physically abused or humiliated in their homes; women who are harassed or raped; women who die prematurely as a consequence of an ill-attended pregnancy, birth, or abortion; women who are abused in medical facilities or who suffer irreparable damage for lack of quality medical service; women who are used as decorative objects to obtain profit; and adolescents and girls who are used by adults without scruples and live with abuse, insults, and threats in the street are subject to violent acts.

This network proposed to train all its members in the appropriate laws of the country for their understanding of so-called "sexual crimes." Using their own skills, they have trained numerous groups of women. They have conducted campaigns to disseminate information and sensitize the population. They have mobilized large groups of women to denounce publically violence against women, and have brought about reforms to the "Law of Sexual Crimes" by working with all political parties, especially with women in Congress who were willing to delve into these problems.

Significant changes to the Mexican law were achieved in 1990, when congressional women from different parties presented an initiative against rape. Sometime later, the government created within the Public Ministry units specializing in sexual crimes. In these centers, women who wish to denounce acts of violence against them may do so. Representatives of independent women's groups formed a Vigilance Committee that oversees the correct functioning of the governmental units and helps to channel women's needs.

Social Organization

It has been a constant struggle for organized groups of women to continue to their individual, familial, and community efforts. To achieve self-development and embark on a lifelong learning process, it is essential for women to be stimulated by the exchange of experiences with other women. Women in their organizational processes not only acquire the necessary skills for these exchanges--such as effective communication, conflict-management, the capacity to delay, the abandonment of prejudices, and openness toward the new and the different--but they also acquire a significant role in public life. The invisible becomes visible; what existed in silence is transformed into an articulate voice; women move from isolation toward collective action; private life acquires a political dimension; fears give way to shared dreams. Generally, the impulse of social organizations of women have encouraged them to actively participate in the public and political life of their neighborhoods, states, and countries. It is here that the contribution of women to the process of democratization can be seen more clearly. Women are participating in the elections of their countries with a greater awarness, and they are learning to exert pressure over their municipal councils to bring attention to the problems they identify and the alternatives they propose.

The Gender Perspective in the Institutional Sphere

Not all popular educators work in women's organizations or have limited their field of action to women. However, in any work directed at the popular sectors, at least half of the targeted population will be women. For this reason, I think that it is interesting to note that many nongovernmental organizations have taken up the challenge of including gender analysis as a necessary practice in their institutional development and in their work with the popular sectors.

The initial assumption is that there are problems in the relations between men and women that need to be addressed in order to advance their elimination. It is assumed that women find themselves socially at a disadvantage because of the way in which society is organized and because of its prevalent ideology. It is recognized that the experiences and social disadvantages are different for every woman, depending on their family, social class, race, religion, and personality.

In order to promote greater equity between men and women, there are certain aspects that deserve attention in any institution: first, the opportunity to gain information, use facilities, get training, go to events, and receive support should be equal for all members of the popular education groups but favor those who are at a disadvantage. For example, it is frequently easier to send men to train outside the community because they do not have to go accompanied by their small children, while women usually do, especially when they are breastfeeding. Second, in responding to men's and women's needs, it should be acknowledged that women are, for many reasons, different because of their experience and condition as women. For example, popular educators many times fail to talk about their need for driving lessons because all of the males know how to drive. Third, conditions should be created for the equitable distribution of power. For example, where it is possible, care should be taken so that an equal number of men and women are in positions of leadership, coordination, policy design, strategy, and evaluation. Last, the institution should contribute to creating an atmosphere in which women and men can achieve self-acceptance and gain self-respect that will make it possible for them to accept others as equals, whether they are male or female.

Women have assumed responsibilities as directors in some institutions and have created new administrative systems and new criteria of internal functioning for the evaluation and application of resources. These innovations have favored more horizontal relationships, shared responsibilities, more opportune and efficient mechanisms of correction, and the use of money strictly for specified objectives, thereby avoid the abuse of power by those who manage the financial resources. In sum, women have facilitated a functioning of institutions that is more organic, more efficient, and more agreeable to all those involved, man or woman.

On the other hand, it is necessary to note that many women's organizations still operate with systems and administrative criteria that are completely masculine and traditional, with relationships based on the use of power and internal competition. Because of this, many women's organizations live in crisis and suffer continuous wear and tear due to the incongruity that this type of functioning has with their educational work and with the groups of women they support.

With respect to the work with popular sectors, the same institutional development considerations are pertinent, but it is imperative that the strategies, analyses, work methods, work hours, and techniques utilized be continuously revised and that they take into account the perspectives of men and women. They must also recognize when it is advisable to have mixed groups and when it is best to work with men and women separately. For all of the above to occur, culture and tradition must be taken into account. Working with people of mixed race (mestizos) from the north of Mexico is not the same as working with mestizos in Chiapas, just as it is not the same working with the indegenous people of Otomis as with those of Nahuas or Purepechas. It is necessary to question one's own concept of development from the perspective of men and women. For example, men may define development by the amount of income, while for women the amount of income does not mean development unless it is linked to the possibility of satisfying the needs of the family.

There are still few mixed nongovernmental organizations that in a systematic way include the gender perspective in their administrative processes, in the design of their politics and strategies, and in the analysis of their everyday work.

Popular Educators as Protagonists of Social Change Processes

Popular educators have been the principal subjects in the developments briefly described in this paper. All of them have travelled a road laid down by group reflection and personal transformation. These are complicated processes because they involve women intimately questioning their identity as women and as educators in relation to other groups of women. Each woman shares her own experience with the others and gives the group's process a specific characteristic.

At the Latin American level, popular educators recognize themselves as a social group with an identity of their own which is reinforced through a support and training network. In these networks, the needs of the popular educators are recognized and addressed. Perhaps the strongest network of this type is the Red de Educación Popular entre Mujeres (REPEM) (Network for Popular Education among Women) of the Consejo de Educación de Adultos de America Latina (CEAAL) (Council for Adult Education of Latin America), which maintains links between women from nongovernmental organizations in almost of all the Latin American and Caribbean countries.

REPEM was born in 1981 under the auspices of CEAAL. In 1988, it acquired non-profit legal status and is now governed by the general rules of corporations, in accordance with the civil code of Ecuador, the initial seat of the General Coordinator of REPEM. It functions as a support network for the popular movement of women. Its current objectives are: to contribute to the strengthening of the movement for popular education in Latin America from a theoretical and practical gender perspective; to create a space for reflection, analysis, exchange, and solidarity within which we can share our achievements and our successes as well as our difficulties with the theory and methodology of popular education among women; and to contribute to the formation and self-formation of popular educators in the continent.

Today, 350 organizations actively participate. They are grouped by five sub-regions at the Latin America level: (1) the Southern Cone: Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, and Argentina; (2) Brazil; (3) the Andean Region: Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia; (4) Central America and the Caribbean: Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Haiti; (5) Mexico.

The General Assembly of REPEM, made up of the affiliate organizations, meets every year to elect a directive council. Today, six Latin American programs are in progress: (1) training of educators; (2) systemization; (3) communication; (4) gender, education, and popular economies; (5) basic knowledge of the needs of women; and (6) political participation and leadership of women. In addition, REPEM is launching campaigns for Aeducation without discrimination."

Who are these popular educators? What are their profiles? There are two types of educators: those with a popular background, and those who are from middle-income or upper-class sectors or are intellectuals who work as external agents for the popular sectors. For both, there exists an ideal profile which I will describe as appropriate, even though it is recognized that very few educators can comply fully with the complete profile. There are some characteristics that are easier for women of the popular sectors to acquire than those from the external agents.

First, if gender is important to us, educators must involve themselves in the facilitation of educational processes for women, and they must be willing to revise their own experiences as women and understand them from the gender perspective. Doing so will transform them into participants in the feminist debate.

Second, the quality of the educational processes that they facilitate is defined in great measure by the effectiveness of their communication skills with the sectors with which they work. For this it is necessary that they know the fine connotations of expressions, words, and meanings of the language used. In linguistic terms, it is a question of dominating the same codes of codification and de-codification of reality.

Third, they need to be able to listen and be open to different and new opinions outside of the paradigms used. In other words, the ability to communicate effectively and listen imply a capacity to establish direct, equal, solid, and autonomous relations with those with whom they interact.

Fourth, educators must be willing to continuously revise their ideas and convictions, knowledge, and habits; in other words, to commit themselves to a process of personal transformation. This implies an anti-authoritarian and anti-dogmatic personality with a capacity for criticism and self-criticism.

Fifth, educators need to appropriate a methodological tool that allows them to conduct their processes in a didactic, participative, and respectful way, at the pace of the participants, and to adapt techniques and methods developed for the specific situation and time in which they are working. That is, they must be able to autonomously generate and develop the work with their groups, respecting institutional guidelines if they belong to an organization.

Sixth, educators must be capable of teaching themselves the technical contents of the topics required by the process, and recognize when to ask for support from a specialist in the area. That is why educators are generally highly motivated people in their field who are eager for success and have a sense of responsibility for the intense and disciplined work.

Seventh, educators link themselves in an organic way to the social movements of the popular sectors so that they can efficiently support the women in these movements. This implies identification with the historical and fundamental interests of the popular sectors and the capacity to analyze social processes in order to be able to insert themselves adequately and efficiently in the movements for social change. To achieve a good analysis they must have knowledge of the socio-economic, political, and cultural problems at the national, regional, and local levels.

Eighth, educators must have characteristics that at times seem incompatible: a positive attitude and capacity for teamwork, and, at the same time, initiative and capacity for leadership.

Ninth, educators need to be able to resolve conflicts through the use of words and reason, without fear of confronting difficult or bothersome situations.

Tenth, even though there are exceptions, popular educators should have at least nine years of schooling. Without a good mastery of reading and writing and a basic level of education, it is very difficult to be able to master research, planning, efficient organization, efficient execution, and systematic evaluation.

All of these characteristics are necessary to carry out effective popular education programs.

Obstacles and Challenges Faced by Popular Educators

Although there has been significant advancement during the last 20 years, the women immersed in these transformative processes are few. We have before us several large obstacles:

a) We continue to live in a male chauvinist continent, in which the socialization of boys and girls continues to reproduce patterns that are later very difficult to change.

b) Formal education has undergone a massive inclusion of girls (in countries such as Mexico, education for girls and boys between 6 and 14 years of age is almost equal except in some indigenous zones). However, it has not been able to work toward equality between girls and boys. The educational content, the language, the activities assigned to each sex, and the teachers' treatment of girls and boys are still unequal.

c) The economic crisis is putting preasure on millions of families because men cannot assume their traditional responsibility of providing sustenance. The consequence has been massive migration of men in search of work and the abandonment of their homes where women, boys, girls, and older people live.

d) This situation has provoked the disintegration of the family and an even greater gap between men and women. Gender problems become acute under these circumstances.

e) The feminization of poverty is a well-documented fact and popular educators must take this into account in their proposals to create and transform reality.

f) Women in rural and in marginalized urban areas see the necessity of including themselves in the paid workforce to guarantee the survival of their children. Given the cultural patterns and the acute need for this inclusion, the conditions are highly disadvantageous for women. Many accept assembly work at home since this allows them to care for their children at the same time. Generally the pay is very low and piecemeal, and the labor laws, which give workers a minimum social security, are continuously violated.

g) The absence of public policy, which takes into account both the reproductive and productive roles of women from poor sectors, hampers sectoral and regional diagnostic evaluations aimed at improving the conditions of these women.

To overcome these obstacles, our popular educators must meet the following challenges:

a) To work with practical proposals to promote a modification of the socialization patterns of the family, at least those that are under the control of the women themselves. There may be strategic programs such as "Schools for Parents" in educational centers, especially for parents who attend to children in the first five years of life. Generally, the parents who have very young children are themselves young; they experience parenthood with insecurity and can be open to trying new forms of relationships with and treatment of their boys and girls. There are some successful experiences in this field, although they are rarely documented. It is important to help young fathers and mothers be better parents, and with this generally comes a basis for a better integration of families.

b) To be involved in the campaign that has been launched throughout Latin America by the network of women of CEAAL: working for "education without discrimination." Few nongovernmental organizations have assumed the need to establish a link with national educational systems to facilitate a positive change in formal education. It is important to train women teachers in the equitable treatment of boys and girls and win them over to the struggle for modifying teachers' treatment of and relations with boys and girls. At the same time, it is important to awaken this thought in parent associations and in those responsible for the design of education policy.

c) To take all opportunities to use the microphone of public life to voice the concrete realities of the women which require urgent transformation. There are many opportunities that are set aside where we could address women's problems in the public sphere. The popular educators will have to learn to establish links with the sectors that have power. Only by synchronizing the hopes of the women of the popular sectors with the political will to make them possible will these strategies have a real impact on the daily lives of the majority of women.

d) To support single women, who head their own households, in finding collective ways of easing their domestic burdens--food preparation, childcare, and agricultural production. Social policies should prioritize budgets to support collective solutions of the needs of children of single mothers. Popular educators should privilege the education of these women to offer them the possibility of emerging from the vicious circle that is generally established in these homes.

e) To involve men in the analysis of their reality from the perspective of gender so we can create bridges of communication, encounters, and shared solutions to the problems of survival. Facing a lack of possibilities for the survival of the rural sectors in many regions, it is necessary to create regional strategies of economic renewal which would involve the economically active population, men as well as women. The analysis of the devastating effects at the family level when seasonally migrate must be carried out by both men and women so that both are willing to offer solutions and alternatives and become willing to mobilize to achieve them.

f) To help social organizations find collective solutions to the common problems of women and participate in the instances in which decisions are made that affect their daily lives at all levels: from the family all the way up to the state. If common problems are not assumed in a collective way, it will be difficult to influence the decision-making process. For example, conditions for women workers or piecemeal seamstresses will not be resolved if women accept these contracts individually. The solution to these problems must be approached with solidarity between men and women who will have to propose alternatives in the decision-making spheres.

g)To continue to transform our realities toward more satisfactory, equitable, and participative relations between the genders, in the private and the public spheres. Both men and women will have to continue to assume the responsibility of constructing new relationships as couples, fellow workers, actors in the civil society, activists in political parties, leaders in public life, and as leaders in public administration posts. There are those who affirm that processes of feminization of society will help to humanize it.

h) Many popular educators participated in the preparation of the World Conference for Women in Beijing that took place in 1995. Many organized regional, national, and continental forums in preparation for the proposals of nongovernmental organizations.

At the regional meeting in preparation for Beijing, the women of Latin America and the Caribbean developed six goals to establish their course of action: gender equity, social integration (i.e., women's participation in the responsibilities and benefits of development), reduction of and relief from the poverty of women, women's participation in decision-making, human rights, peace, and an end to violence, and shared family responsibilities. From the information generated for the conference, three thematic axes were prepared under which to present the proposals in Beijing: peace and the right to a life without violence, economic development and structural adjustment, and equality, democracy, and citizenship.

Finally, I would like to stress that in these forums, new fields of action were profiled, some that until now have not been explored or worked on in the continent; these include: indigenous women as a social subject, women and the environment, and systematic participation of women in decision-making spheres and in the public arena.

There is much more to build on among women and it is a privilege to be able to participate in the construction of this fascinating road. Each woman who is incorporated into the process of finding her identity and involved in the transformation of gender and social inequality will have to walk her own road, but we hope that the road will be made easier each day thanks to the lessons learned by her predecessors.

The incorporation of men into parallel processes is crucial if we are interested in opening fruitful bridges of communication. It is a challenge to initiate the exchange of our experiences as men and as women, with our respective frustrations and satisfactions and with the utopias we wish to reach. Today, there are several women's groups that see this need and are addressing it. However, it is necessary that men themselves assume this responsibility.

There are some who already do, but it is not easy. It is an enormous taboo for men to share their weaknesses and address their insecurities and frustrations. There are currently no legitimate spaces in which to address these topics, to share them collectively in order to initiate processes of personal transformation and modification of daily habits. As in all social processes, the problems are addressed only when the pressure is great enough. To the extent that women advance, the challenge for men increases. I do not doubt that they will increasingly address this challenge in the years to come.


*Sylvia van Dijk is the Director of Fundación de Apoyo Infantil Guanajuato. She is interested in community development projects for children from a gender perspective. She is also concerned with making institutional development compatible with self-management approaches.


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