Before I met Maria Galindo of Mujeres Creando (women creating), her name had been mentioned to me a few times. Her fearsome reputation both as an interviewer (on her radio show) and as a staunch feminist and radical inspired a mix of intimidation and admiration, respectively, and in the event of actually interviewing her she didnt disappoint on either count. Her confrontational stance while I was still mumbling my preliminaries put me firmly in her place, but while she didnt exactly become amiable during our talk the conversation did develop into something less combative and more enlightening.
Mujeres Creando is a womens movement located in a baroque-looking magenta building(named Virgen de los Deseos or Virgin of Desires)next door to my new flat. Their radio station, Radio Deseo,is located in the same building, along with a restaurant, library, workshop spaces, hostel, crche and no doubt many other things. Quite a few people here roll their eyes at the project in the same infuriating way that people at home roll their eyes when you talk about feminism these days, like its some kind of pass fad which only maladjusted people care about. But even if you want to leave aside their political agitation (which I dont), the interview that follows is revealing of the role that this organisation plays in keeping individual women safe day-to-day: doing the sort of work that Family Action, my former employer in the UK, was receiving government funding to carry out.
MR: Can you tell me a bit about the history and background of the project and what goes on inside this building?
MG: We began in 1992 when neoliberalism was in a moment of success, more or less. I mean the whole society thought this is the way to live, and many social movements didnt have any voice at that moment. We began taking to the streets, with graffiti, with actions. But its not just activismthe street is, in Bolivia, the most important political place. Its a place to get voice. It is not so important the academy, the university. It is not so important the Parliament, the institutions, but the street.
We are not accepting the idea that we work for others. Not accepting also this idea of hierarchies between some women and others. We work with the idea that everything if you are speaking about education or if you are speaking about health, or if you are speaking about love, or whatever it has to be with fighting. It has to be with making questions. It has to be with saying no. We take seriously a problem when the people who are involved in the problem are ready to fight. When women are not ready to fight we dont do anything. Because we are not mothers, we are sisters.
MR: I spotted on the website you have this open invitation to contribute evaluations of the Government
MG: (Laughs) WellEvo Morales says the whole time he is a government for the social movements, so hes going to be evaluated by the social movements. We say: social movements dont have a voice from the people at the moment because Evo Morales is calling social movements only those movements which are with him; just those people who are very, very near to himSo really they cannot take our voice and tell how are things going. It is a big crisis. There are a lot of very important voices which dont have a mouth to speak with.
MR: And how do you, as a movement, go about trying to make sure that you do create more access?
MG: I am very conscious that you never have enough doors. So we have many doors. For example the radio is open. You can hear the radio, but you can also manage and own a radio show. Then I have 10, 20 people every day who come here to speak with me after my radio show and they propose lots and lots of things. We get lots of invitations from little groups. Everybody can come here, can propose things. We go everywhere in the country.
MR: Can you give me a couple of examples of the kinds of proposals people bring to you?
MG: From the last year for me the most important was thatIve have been speaking about prostitution since years in Bolivia, since years. And then I got in contact because they came here I got in contact with young prostitutes who were trying to set up their own place: not run by their owners but by themselves. And they proposed us to be with them, to make the bureaucratic papers with the government of the City. It was really very, very difficult. They have been arrested four times last year. And they have been arrested because we began speaking about a place of prostitution with no owners. Sin proxinetas [without pimps]. And thats very dangerous for the proxinetas. They want to have the control. And we didnt reach the point we wanted for example a paper with the City to say OK, they have permission but in the end the police doesnt go to arrest them because we are thereAnd I am really not in agreement, I feel very sick when I go there, but I am very, very conscious that those places are much, much better than the places of the proxinetas. I saw that. I have been there
But we make also little things which are not so little. For example we get a mother who says listen, I left the house [because of domestic violence]. I was with a lot of fear and I left my baby there. So I want to go back and take my baby with me. We sort that in five minutes, really. We do that. And then we stick with the mother for so long as she wants. Last year I also had a lot of dealings with the womens prison. We put out the chief of police of the womens prison twice in one year.
MR: To do with the treatment of the women inside?
MG: Because of the treatment. We denounced the treatment. But when we denounce something we make it really very hard. So sometimes the government has to do something with the things that we say.
MR: I would be interested to know a bit more about what has or hasnt changed for women since Evo has been in power, and what hopes have or havent been disappointed?
MG: It is not my approach to evaluate something and say I wanted to see this regarding womens situation. Because what does it mean, womens situation? Violence against women, abortion, womens rights andBut then unemployment? Where does it belong? Or for example: there is a big crisis in the public university does it belong to womens situation or not? So I reject reading womens situation as something specific. Because we are working, the whole time, in a struggle to say women are going to speak about economy, about history, about country, about democracy and whatever. We are not going to speak about having three parliamentarians and a law where you say that women have rights. But at the same time, when you say Okay, how is the country going?, how is the economy, how is unemployment?, you have to look at what is going on with women.
MR: And do you think that what is going on with women has changed?
MG: Well then you have to say that things are not going okay. There are a lot of human rights violations and much abuse of power. And if you talk about human rights its particularly screwed up when it comes to women as I saw in the prison. And these types of problems are not seen as important. Theres no space for discussion, for a deeper analysis. We are only on a superficial level: ecology, women, indigenous peoplesbut its very rhetorical. Lots of words but nothing doing. So I am experiencing a very great disappointment. Some issues were very urgent for Bolivian society, very urgent, and you see nothing happened.
MR: Can you tell me a bit about how you generate income?
MG: Yeah we are making something very mixed. We have a structure like a cooperative, so people are working for themselves here. Then we have volunteers. Then we have common money. If you get sick we have the money for thatAnd then we get cooperation [funding]. But we want this to be little, for those things we cannot fund for example this domestic violence approach. We have ten volunteers, women who already suffered violence but who are now in another moment. And then we have two women who have to work eight hours every day. We need a lawyer eight hours every day. So they do get a salary, and the women who take that service cannot pay that. They should not pay that also. So we get funding for those two salaries. Then we sometimes get funding for a book, and then we sell the book, and the money from the book comes to the common money of everybody. The biggest problem that we have is the radio. The radio is 14 hours every day. We are 32 people in the radio and two get a salary. At the moment the House is paying for the radio, but its too heavy for the House. But we have also a hostel for example
MR: I dont know if this is an answerable questionon a regional level is there a country in Latin America which is maybe making more progress in terms of social progress?
MG: I think thats very, very complicated to say. Latin America is in a very interesting moment. Not because of Chavez, not because of Lula, or Moralesbut it is in a very interesting moment because neoliberalism didnt offer what they say we were going to get. And then you have lots of young people, and lots of cultural productionFive years ago, or seven years ago, we had more relationship to Spain and the United States. And now for example people invite us to Argentina twice in one year. And it is very difficult to get the money because we dont have the money I mean we as Latin America, these institutions dont give money to make south-south exchanges. So I think there is a growing of consciousness, there is a growing of questions, there is a growing of many, many things
MR: What are the particular national issues in Bolivia which pose a challenge for your work with women?
MG: Well, first of all it is economic autonomy. Since 1985 I think women in Bolivia made a revolution. But nobody says that, in the whole countryno sociologists, nobody! Women went to the streets and transformed the street. Because they made out of the street a place of survival, a means of supporting themselves. But this search for economic emancipation is a frustrated process. Microfinancing, for example, is recapturing all the work of women for the benefit of the banks. And 70% of bank customers in Bolivia are women
I think a very important challenge is that women are not developing their own distinct spaces. But we are not connecting. Each women feels she is alone, like its some personal rebellion. But the personal rebellion of each woman is nothing without a connection with others. Including not only the necessity for support, but in order to deepen the analysis. We are not looking amongst each other, we are not connecting. And I have been working some years in this. And its hard. Its very, very hard.