SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (WOMENSENEWS)–Marlen Chacon no longer depends on her husband–not even for a pair of shoes. Nor does she have to submit to his spurts of anger that frequently led to violence. For the first time in her life she has a job and in September became part owner of a small business.
Chacon took an eight-month training program sponsored by the Alianza de Mujeres Costarricenses (The Alliance of Costa Rican Women) on how to deal with domestic violence, what her rights are as a woman and how to build leadership skills and self-esteem. In March 2002, she even acted as a congresswoman, representing the alliance in a special session of Congress.
In 1996, Chacon, with the help and support of the alliance, began working on a recycling project developed by a group of Costa Rican students at West Texas A and M University who had been encouraged to do something to benefit their country. In September, she and nine women co-workers became full owners of the business and now reap all the profits. The goal is to reduce the garbage by 40 percent by 2006.
“The Alliance is like our mother because, with them, we begin to grow and form ourselves as women,” says Chacon as she proudly shows a visitor around, pointing out which plastic bottle or what type of paper will be bought by which company. Coca Cola, for example, will buy only those bottles with the number one on the bottom, while Kimberly Clark will buy only shredded paper.
“With the alliance we are always part of a circle, part of a family.”
In a nation known internationally for its efforts at building peace, the Alianza works for women’s rights, social justice, equality and peace at home. The alliance is founded on the premise that women must be united and organized if they are to fight all forms of discrimination and violence, whether sexual, physical or mental. The union advocates well-paid work, equal working conditions, basic community services, and for the support of the state to eliminate the double shift women often work–one at their job and one at home.
The alliance also strives to make domestic work valued and to remove sexist stereotypes that isolate women in the home. For example, alliance partner Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Women’s Network recently won a lawsuit against a San Jose manufacturer of household cleaning products for discrimination against black women and its use of racist stereotypes on packaging and in its advertising jingles.
“The jingle basically said that the only use for women was as domestics or as sexual objects,” says Ann McKinley, president of the network. “On the package was a black woman wearing a kerchief, a little like Aunt Jemima.”
Housing Is a Top Priority for the Alliance
The alliance has gone well beyond changing the terms of housework to helping develop home ownership among women. In one town where women had been living in tin houses, 15 women with the help of the alliance were able to negotiate with local officials to gain access to land on which they built their own houses. Even the title is in their name, something very unusual in Costa Rica.
Though many couldn’t read or write, they were able to negotiate directly with the political leadership because of the training they had received. Other women are now employing the negotiating tactics so successfully used by the women of this village.
And in Limon, about 2 1/2 hours from San Jose, Alma Iris Contreras, 41, has been working with the alliance for nearly 10 years helping 65 families–most of them headed by women–gain title to their homes.
“Everyone has a right to have a dignified house,” says Contreras. “We organize to fight for this right, for self respect, so that not only the men as head of household can receive the title.” But ownership is not all she is seeking. “Most of these families still have outhouses and no potable water. This is not dignified. The alliance gives us the strength to continue to fight until we get these things.”
The union has also been working with 500 teen-age mothers a year throughout the country to get them to finish school, develop skills and find employment, as well as how to make sure future pregnancies are planned and wanted.
After 50 years, Much Gained, Much to Pursue
The Alianza de Mujeres Costarricenses was formed in 1952 after the Costa Rican civil war. Women realized that if they were going to fight for their rights they needed an organized movement and a space where they could have the power to make decisions and to fight for access to the decision-making process. Professional and grassroots women train and teach each other to negotiate–with government officials, with other groups, with their husbands and even with themselves, to give themselves permission, for example, to join the union.
“It is not sufficient for a group of women to knock on the door of a government official,” says Monica Vega Zuniga, a psychologist and an alliance leader. “They must be organized so they can accomplish their goals.”
The 25,000 union members meet in small groups all over the country to analyze from their own experience the problems that most women encounter, what they need to better their condition and to develop projects to fight domestic violence. The groups are never led by professionals, but by the women themselves, while the union provides volunteer social workers, psychologists and lawyers to work primarily on cases of domestic violence and labor rights violations.
“It’s easier to ask women from your own community for advice rather than having to deal with some far-away institution,” says Ana Hernandez of the alliance.
Women define their strategies and objectives in monthly meetings and evaluate what they have accomplished. Women from outlying regions who cannot get to regional or national meetings are kept up-to-date with regular newsletters. One regional group, Alianza de Mujeres de Barva, decided during their monthly meetings to study how merchants were violating the rights of consumers.
“In the majority of cases it is the woman who is in charge of the household expenses and does the most buying,” says Rosa Elena Prieto, president of the alliance of Barva, about an hour outside of the capital. “During our study we found many cases where merchants were violating the rights of consumers and then developed a way to educate both the buyers and the sellers so it could be avoided.”
Because of the alliance’s affiliation with international grassroots organizations, they have been showcased at international meetings, such as the Grassroots Women’s International Academy, sponsored by the Huairou Commission both in Germany and at the United Nations in New York, at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women and, most recently, last May at the First International Seminar on Women’s Safety in Montreal.
“Before I joined the alliance, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know my rights or what laws existed to protect me, or how much I was worth as a person,” Chacon, 37, says. “They helped me to pull myself up and confront the macho attitude of the Costa Rican male that women should not work outside of the home.”
Her husband, she says, has still not gotten over the idea that if she leaves the house she will find another man, even though he has visited her at the project. But he and her three children, ages 9, 13 and 15, are slowly accepting the fact that their mother isn’t home all day and her children even did a recycling project at school.
“At first I wanted my husband to leave because I had so many problems with him,” says Chacon. “But as I changed, he changed. He knows now that I know how to defend and protect myself. He knows I know the law. I learned how to value myself as a woman and that no one has the right to harm me. I learned how to communicate this to him.”
Helen Drusine is a freelance writer living in New York City specializing in women’s issues. Her articles have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times and OMNI Magazine among others.
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