Educating Women to Participate in 2019 Elections.

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For hundreds of years, indigenous women in Guatemala’s highlands have been disenfranchised and excluded from the political process. Despite the fact that indigenous people constitute a majority of the population, they have very little political influence. Indigenous women, many of whom survived sexual violence during the civil war and still experience tremendous sexual discrimination, are especially underrepresented politically. However, in recent years women in different indigenous communities with the support of AMA have begun to learn about civics and gradually become more engaged in a political process that was designed to exclude them. We’ve seen women successfully pressuring local politicians to obtain material support for their community projects, and we’ve also watched and supported as indigenous women have begun to get involved in local governing bodies. Our hope is that with our continued support, indigenous women of the highlands will continue to get involved in politics in order to force the government to serve them and their communities.

Political parties have never acted in the best interests of the rural indigenous people, who have experienced numerous barriers to meaningful participation in the political process. Literacy is a major concern; the illiterate population in Guatemala is sizeable and in the indigenous communities, most people do not speak Spanish as their first language or at all. When they go to the polls, many of these voters are simply told to mark a certain box or color, without fully understanding the implications. This issue is compounded by the fact that polling places are often two hours away from where people live- how do they get from their home to the polls? Frequently, politicians will pay to bus people to the polls, implicitly or explicitly pressuring them to vote for that politician. Additionally, the political parties that go into indigenous communities to campaign tend to be right-wing parties; their traditional strategy is “visual contamination,” i.e. plastering communities with political posters and slogans linking a candidate to a certain color that appears on ballots. By simplifying elections down to which color to mark on the ballot, the issues that people are actually voting on are obscured and parties are able to gain or retain political power based on voters not understanding the process. Essentially, even though people ARE voting in elections, they’re not voting for their own interests, and they’re also not getting anything in return for their vote- with no civics education, they don’t understand that voting is supposed to be their way of getting what they want for themselves and their communities.

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At the moment, AMA is working on ensuring that the indigenous community understands the political process in order to participate in a more meaningful way. For the first time in their lives, indigenous women are receiving an education on civics- what are the branches of government? What are the political parties? What is the difference between a community’s political interests and those of the parties? What is the difference between a right-wing party and a left-wing party- how do you decide which one to support? What does voting really mean- what is the connection between making a mark on a ballot and experiencing changes in the community? In AMA’s civics classes, women are helping each other understand how to “read” a ballot- which color or symbol corresponds to a party or politician, and which politician corresponds to a certain policy. The goal is for women to be able to go to the polls and choose who they’re voting for, rather than being told who to vote for and complying due to a lack of understanding.

We have also seen indigenous women engaging in politics by getting their local politicians to work for them. In the Espumpuja community, women successfully mobilized to convince the mayor to supply them with a truck and fuel to move soil for their reforestation project, which aims to provide women in the community with a safe source of sustainable fuel so that they don’t need to go into unfamiliar areas (where they could be vulnerable to sexual violence or assault) to gather wood to use for cooking fuel. In the Tui’niwitz community, women successfully petitioned the mayor for materials to build a school. Without an understanding of the role of government and the ways in which they can participate, these women would not have been able to pressure their politicians into actually serving them. Both communities are now experiencing a more responsive government. The reforestation project in Espumpuja is now able to use the truck when they need it, and they were even able to get support from the government to build a greenhouse for the seedlings they’re cultivating. Indigenous women are also getting involved in local political organizations like COCODE (Community Development Committees, in English), allowing them to have a voice and to be advocates for their communities. The momentum is building!

Of course, the greater goal is for indigenous women to be able to participate in national politics. Despite comprising a majority of the national population, indigenous Guatemalans are not represented in Congress, which is dominated by wealthy oligarchs who serve the interests of the extremely wealthy. Currently, there are zero elected politicians at the national level who are indigenous women (there are a couple of indigenous men, but no women yet). In a country where mining companies and huge agriculture exporters have been able to seize land and displace the people living there, it is critically important that indigenous people are able to use the political process to protect their rights to land and clean water. AMA will continue to support indigenous women as they become more educated on how to engage in politics for the betterment of their families and communities- this is the best and only way forward.

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Diana Alvarado