By Sian Cowman
Versión en español aquí.
At the end of May 2015 the Democracy Center and women from the María Auxiliadora community in the Zona Sur of Cochabamba, Bolivia, organized a photo exhibition and speaking event under the title Sembrando Dignidad Ante el Patriarcado y el Cambio Climático – Sowing Dignity in the face of Patriarchy and Climate Change.
Watch three clips of Doña María Eugenia and Doña Rosa from Community María Auxiliadora and Leny Olivera from the Democracy Center speaking at the event, and scroll down to read more.
The photos exhibited focused on the lives of four women of the community – Doña Rosa, Doña María Eugenia, Doña Irene and Doña Isabel – accompanied by quotes from interviews with them. Project coordinators Leny Olivera and Carey Averbook spent many hours with the four women in their homes, listening to their stories and photographing their lives. The full collection of photos, excerpts and accompanying texts is available on the site Climate Change is About…Women.
Introducing the project at the event, Leny explained where the inspiration came from: “We saw that the impacts of climate change in urban zones like the Zona Sur of Cochabamba are little researched, and even less so the impacts on women. We felt it was the right moment for this project, especially because women in Bolivia are so exposed to violence – as we can see in the daily cases of feminicidio.” The project seeks to show how climate change brings new forms of violence to women’s lives – and how, through the experience of collective living, the women are able to deal with not only direct violence in their lives but climate change impacts as well.
Doña María Eugenia and Doña Rosa joined us for the live event. Both had brought their own produce to sell: cakes and breads, and homemade dehydrated vegetables. Each of the women involved in the project has a different story, but they all tell of the ways the community has supported them: to be independent from violent partners, to be community leaders, and to grow fresh healthy food in their own gardens. All of these different elements contribute to resilience: in the face of challenges such as violence against their person but also in the face of climate change.
At the event, Doña Rosa spoke of the resilience inherent in her unique method of dehydrating vegetables: “There are times, such as during the Water War when we would go to the market and there was nothing to eat. So having dehydrated vegetables in times of disaster, say an earthquake or flooding – when there is scarcity – means you can eat.”
In the context of María Auxiliadora, where only women can hold the most important leadership positions in the community, it’s clear that assuming such roles means women taking on extra work on top of all they already have to do. Housework and caring for children especially is expected of women; they often have paid jobs as well; and in María Auxiliadora they are also food-growers. This triple burden means that active participation by women in decision-making spaces is often more aspirational than attainable, and even then attainable implies an unfair workload.
“My work is as a baker,” Dona María Eugenia told the audience. “I often work until midnight. Then I get up at five in the morning to bring the products to a school. I’m a single mother; I have to work to maintain us. That’s my work from Monday to Friday. Then as a leader I also have to give of my time, there are responsibilities.”
This is extremely relevant in the context of climate change activism. Due to their social roles, women are often held up as the guardians of the earth and protectors of future generations: yes, women’s leadership in the fight against climate change is of utmost importance; but no, it cannot be taken for granted that it should become an extra weight on top of women’s already heavy daily burden. Any group, organisation or decision-making space that seeks to increase women’s active participation needs to address this – otherwise the expectations placed on women are impossible to meet!
But despite the challenges, Doña Maria Eugenia spoke of the evident positive impacts the community has had on her life: “When I went to live in the community I thought my partner was going to change. He changed for a while but then he started drinking again; it was the eternal fight. That’s why I have this mark above my eye, he bit me…From that time, we separated, and the community helped me to be able to stay in my home with my son.”
The event sought to show some of the experiences of women around community living and the responsibilities of leadership, especially in the context of climate change. And as more and more people migrate due to climate change impacts, listening to voices of women from these migratory peri-urban areas becomes more and more important, especially as climate change exacerbates the violence they already experience in their lives. Feminicidio is a word meaning misogynist murder of women. Bolivia has one of the highest rates of violence against women in Latin America – read more here: http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/south-america-bolivia-combating-violence-against-women
The Water War was a popular uprising against the privatization of the water supply in Cochabamba. Read more here: http://democracyctr.org/bolivia/investigations/bolivia-investigations-the-water-revolt/