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La Educación
Número: (116) III
Año: 1993

Women and Mobilization for Basic Needs

The economic crisis of the 1980s resulted in dramatic efforts to ensure individual and family survival. In the mobilization efforts that ensued in much of Latin America to create community dining halls, community kitchens, production cooperatives, and food supply warehouses, women played a key role in the operation and maintenance of these groups.

This experience has been examined by a number of women researchers. Some do not perceive any significant shifts toward greater autonomy among the women studied (Barrig 1989; Feijoo 1992). But others recognize substantial changes. In the view of the latter group, survival needs created new spaces for women’s action that, while centered on traditionally female reproductive tasks—particularly cooking, also enabled women to discover the existence of domination in personal relations with men, the unequal distribution of tasks and responsibilities in the home, and their limited decisionmaking power in both the private and public sphere (Arteaga 1988; Schmukler 1992). Schmukler (forthcoming) points out that the experience in common kitchen settings, where women cooked for children and members of the community and family groups ate together, produced social settings where women assisted family groups to work together for common goals, thus altering the idea of isolation of the nuclear family group.

Referring to evidence from Chile, Schild (1992) reports that numerous women’s groups that originated during the dictatorship as income-generating groups or human rights groups have redefined their purposes and goals in recent times. Some groups continue to center on production workshops; others focus specifically on education for personal growth; but most groups engage in a mixture of both activities. These women are organizing themselves at zonal and district levels and are meeting to evaluate past activities and to plan new ones. They are experiencing difficulties moving away from handicraft activities, but forms of political learning, such as who they are, what their rights are, and what actions are appropriate, are central aspects of their learning and appear increasingly on their organizational agenda. Schild (1992) explains that this political learning involves:
...challenging pre-established boundaries of appropriate feminine behavior, and is lived by women learning to experience themselves as confident, competent beings and acting accordingly, or what women call ‘actuar desde uno misma’ [acting on one’s own]. (15)
Chilean women are now expanding these spaces to create what Schild calls “symbolic networks” or the creation of workshops on topics ranging from sexuality to family violence and leadership training. Schild (1992) also reports increasing contacts between these low-income women and middle-class feminists, contacts that are enabling poor women to develop alternative identities, including what some of the women themselves term “popular feminism.” (For Argentine data, see Schmukler 1992 and forthcoming).