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La Educación
Número: (116) III
Año: 1993

Motherhood and Human Rights

Traditional conceptions of female authority in Latin America, and to a somewhat lesser degree in other regions, rest on the moral superiority of women as mothers. By social definition, mothers are supposed to be altruistic, devoted to the protection of their immediate families, and responsive to male authority. Traditional motherhood isolates women within the walls of the household, does not challenge paternal authority, and harmonizes conflicts between the children and father (Lomnitz 1984; Wasserspring 1992; Schmukler, forthcoming).

Today, the concept of motherhood and its location in the private and public spheres is being redefined in everyday life within the popular movements and women’s organizations in Latin America. The new motherhood challenges the isolation and fragmentation of women in households, fosters the capacity to act in public, and promotes the development of autonomous women’s organizations. It also challenges the concept of a private role as opposed to “politics” and thus seeks the redefinition of politics by bringing the women’s private experiences to the public sphere (Schmukler 1992, 11).

The origins of this transformation in the concept of motherhood can be traced back to the mobilizations for human rights carried out for the most part by women in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. The best known of these efforts were those by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who demonstrated for 10 years in one of the most important parks of Buenos Aires demanding that the military government produce information about their disappeared children and grandchildren. What appeared at first sight to be an expression of personal grief was in deeper analysis a citizen’s demand for justice as part of a larger commitment to reshape and redefine the agenda of politics.

The mothers challenged gender norms by the actions and symbols employed in their demonstrations. By breaking the silence through public demonstrations and by crossing social boundaries between public and private spheres, their explicit condemnation of human rights abuses and tacit challenge of gender norms are now understood as fundamental challenges to the military dictatorship (Ackelsberg and Shanley 1992).

Most observers, though not all, agree that in the end these Argentine women “reconstructed the notion of female citizenship, involving extensive speaking and activity in public and on issues of public concern” (Ackelsberg and Shanley 1992, 16). Concurring with this appreciation, Schmukler argues that the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo “redefined their domestic role rather than rejected it.” She notes that a strong characteristic of the participation of women in this group has been an “unorthodox combination of the emotional with the rational and of particular with general interests” (forthcoming, 17). Similar transformations have been reported as a result of the experience in defense of human rights by women in Chile (Arteaga 1988) and Brazil (Tabak 1983).

There are those who doubt that the social practice of mothering can be transferred to democracy:
Democratic citizenship, on the other hand, is collective, inclusive, and generalized. Because it is a condition in which individuals aim at being equal, the mother-child relationship is a particularly inappropriate model. For citizenship is an active condition in which many persons share the responsibility of ruling and concern themselves not only with matters of general public policy, but also with perpetuating the very activity of citizenship itself. (Dietz 1985, 31)
To recognize the links between maternal concerns and political mobilization should not steer us toward a model of politics based on the essence of motherhood. On the other hand, it would be unrealistic to expect these new political participants to engage in demands that are totally alien to their previous experience. Only recently have women had the opportunity to set up autonomous organizations. Creating new modes of working together, away from clientelist links with traditional external leaders, is already an innovative form of political action.

The repercussions of the new social and gender identity on other areas of national life have been only slightly documented, but the evidence suggests strong effects. After the return to civilian rule in Argentina, a coalition of women’s organizations calling itself La Multisectorial formed to press the government on specific problems and forced Congress to pass a law known as patria potestad compartida (shared parental authority) (Gajardo 1985). Through their participation in community groups, women have experimented less with hierarchical organization and more with human rights concerns regarding hunger, health, and multiple demands of the poor (Schmukler 1992). In Chile, women have become conscious that a new society “also implies breaking the oppressive structures that deny equality, dignity, the right to self determination and meaningful human relationships for both women and men” (Gajardo 1985, 6). Since 1985, initiatives by Chilean women have tried to change the civil code regarding family legislation. In Brazil, women’s groups, including those in marginal neighborhoods, demanded and played a clear role in constitutional changes in Brazil.

Additional transformations of social and gender identity have occurred through the participation of low-income women in mothers’ clubs and other Church-initiated groups. The Catholic Church, an institution of unquestionable influence in Latin America, has experienced drastic changes in the last 20 years and now finds itself divided. Its dominant voice is being gradually challenged; the emergence of liberation theology introduced not only “an option for the poor” but also participation of people in celebration of mass, access to the Bible, and various forms of local decisionmaking. The existence of numerous ecclesiastical grassroots groups (Comunidades Eclesiais de Base; CEBs) in Brazil is an important reflection of decentered church power. These developments have not always been accompanied by gender awareness, but many previously Church-guided women’s groups have become secular and have moved on to expand their set of social concerns in Brazil and Chile. At the same time, the potential challenge from these groups has not gone undetected by conservative Church authorities, who have taken measures to reduce this growth. Reports from Chile (Schild 1992) and Brazil indicate that these authorities are taking steps to remove community organizers who endorse working for the poor along the lines of liberation theology.

The changes that the mobilization of mothers is producing have not affected every woman. Certainly there are many who still operate within conventional parameters. But the key point is that these new social spaces have benefitted a number of women and have had ripple effects in other spheres of social life. In Schmukler’s view, these changes are profound in that they have modified a private maternal altruism into “social motherhood.” She concludes from her study of peripheral neighborhoods in Buenos Aires that social motherhood has done much to redefine everyday life in the barrios, notably by increasing the prestige of women both as organizers and as fighters for human rights when political organizations were silenced (Schmukler, forthcoming).