Célia em Movimento

an E-CHANGER volunteer for 7 years, celia worked until june 2007 for the 'gender sector' of the MST/BA - the rural landless workers movement in the northeastern brazilian state of bahia. from then until june 2010 she worked at the international secretariat of the world march of women in são paulo. although she is no longer a volunteer, she still works in brazil with the WMW and E-CHANGER and will therefore continue to share her professional and personal experiences... enjoy!

05 January 2008

I Encounter of Zapatista Women with Women of the World

New Year’s Eve 2007 was not spent on a Brazilian beach dressed in white as it was last year, but in the company of Zapatista women and men in the mountainous Lacandona Forest of south-east Mexico…

Today is the 1st day of 2008 and I’m waiting for the minibus which will take us down the mountain and back to the city after 4 days at the I Encounter of Zapatista Women with Women of the World… What an amazing, emotional experience.

Refusing to remain ignored, marginalised and exploited by the Mexican government and the Neoliberal capitalist system which it promotes, indigenous men and women of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (ZNLA) showed their faces to the world (although not literally - they are never seen in public without balaclavas, therefore they have no identity) on 1st January 1994. 14 years ago to this day Mexico woke up to find the state of Chiapas, south-east Mexico, under control of a left-wing rebel group, its members having spent 10 years in clandestine preparation, organisation and mobilisation in the Lacandona Forest of the region. Their spokesperson and leader is the infamous Marcos, entitled Sub-commander because it is the people who are the commander.

Essentially a political, anti-neoliberal globalisation movement, the Zapatistas (named after Emiliano Zapata: leading force of the Mexican Revolution that broke out in 1910, outstanding national hero and symbol of rebelliousness) resorted to taking up arms as the last hope for putting into practice the basic principals of the Mexican Constitution and to defend the 38 municipalities of Chiapas state that is their autonomous territory. Here, since the 1st January 1994 uprising, the almost exclusively indigenous rural population are no longer treated like animals and subjected to slave labour by extremely violent plantation owners. They are still extremely poor, but they are finally free from hundreds of years of exploitation and have put enormous effort – with the help and defence of the ZNLA – into creating autonomous education, health and hygiene, production and justice systems. And they have achieved all this while “in resistance”, in other words without accepting any financial or technical from the State, whom they know as the ‘Bad Government’.

Zapatista communities are organised into autonomous municipalities and these in turn are grouped into 5 Caracoles (meaning the large snail-shells which, when blown, make a sound that is traditionally used by the indigenous as a summons for the community to face its problems and resolve them collectively). Here the laws of the Federal government are not recognised, nor are taxes paid; instead the Zapatista autonomous authorities (indigenous men and women who hold their positions of authority according to a 3-year rotation method) serve, organise and govern their communities, obeying the people without receiving a salary. They are elected in Community Assemblies and can be replaced at any time. Their duties include resolving community problems or conflicts, punishment of crime, control of natural resources and protection of the environment, and organisation of public services, collective work and agricultural production, all founded on the philosophy, community-based democratic values and ‘cosmovision’ of the indigenous populations, descendents of the mighty Mayas (a spiritual people of engineering, mathematics, astronomy and an incredibly rich culture - including the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas - in Eastern Mexico and Guatemala before the Spanish destroyed their cities in the 1500s and 1600s). In other words, the autonomous Zapatista authorities are independently implementing the 'San Andres Agreement' (see 'Chiapas in Conflict' below) negotiated with the Federal government but that the State has always refused to respect. Immense national and international support - technical, financial - and solidarity have been vital to this process, as has the Zapatista's use of the internet and independent media sources around the world.

With the establishment of the ‘Revolutionary Law of Women’ by the ZNLA before the 1994 uprising and the adherence to it by Zapatista communities since that date, the position of women has improved significantly. Where once girls were not sent to school because it was believed they had no need for education, they now attend autonomous Zapatista schools with their brothers. Where once traditional midwives charged less for their services if a girl was born than if it was a boy, now children are taught that they are equal. Where once young women were obliged to have sex with the plantation owners before their arranged marriages, they now marry who they want without being raped beforehand by these bosses (who no longer exist because in 1994 the Zapatistas reclaimed huge tracts of land that had been stolen from indigenous communities). Where once women worked for no pay or in exchange for leftover food in the plantation owners houses – where they were at constant risk of sexual violence and pregnancy as a result of rape - they now work for their communities and families. Where once they were not permitted by their husbands to leave the house on the grounds that they would go and find themselves another man, they now hold positions of responsibility and participate actively in community life.

However, despite all these advances for women since the uprising (Zapatista and non-Zapatista have benefited in the Zapatista autonomous territories because the movement does not discriminate according to affiliation), the inequality between women and men is still strong and the oppression of women is evident in public and private spheres of life. Men are still reluctant to let the women leave the house, and they are still responsible for all the house work and looking after the children and food preparation, although “the men help us a bit more now” (Health promoter Sandra, Caracole Oventik, 30th December 2007). And they are still in the minority at all levels of Zapatista autonomous authority and suffer the ridicule of men who doubt their capacity to lead, make decisions and take on community responsibilities.

The Zapatista women commanders – community authorities and a handful of military captains from the ZNLA - shared all these advances and challenges with each other and with us (women from other organisations in Mexico and internationally) at the I Encounter of Zapatista Women with Women of Mexico and Women of the World from 28th – 31st December in the Caracole ‘La Garrucha’. Although it was the III Encounter of the Zapatistas (men and women) with People of the World, it was the first time in 14 years that an Encounter was organised by the women for women, and therefore an important step in the recognition of the inequality that exists between sexes and in the struggle against this reality. As members of a mixed movement (men and women) traditionally lead by men, in a strongly patriarchal society, they are facing the challenge of carving out a space for themselves as equals.

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