Theresa Braine

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)–One woman was a midwife. Another was an activist who worked for a radio station. A third was washing floors in someone’s home.

Altogether there were five. I recruited them in the summer of 2006 and they made up the first class of the Press Institute for Women in the Developing World, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif., whose board I’d joined earlier that year.

They had varying levels of education. But as the citizen-journalism project got underway it often seemed they were doing as much teaching as learning. It was a true exchange of energy and insight.

That summer, when I got to San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern state of Chiapas, enthusiasm for both journalism and Mexico was flagging.

After nearly four years in Mexico City, I was worn down by the inefficiency and lack of cooperation from government agencies on the simplest of reporting matters. I had covered a hotly contested presidential election and seen first-hand what lack of institutional trust does to a society as thousands of people camped out for months on a major city thoroughfare to protest the results, alleging fraud and calling for a complete recount (which they never got). I was thinking about moving back to the States and getting a “real” job.

But then I met Marissa Revilla, Maria Antoineta Gomez Alvarez, Rosario Adriana Alcazar Gonzalez, Delmy Tania Cruz Hernandez and Juana de Jesus Perez Mendez.

Cristi Hegranes, founder and president of the project, assigned me to spend a week recruiting the first-ever class of women who would be trained to write fair and balanced reported stories and get paid for their articles, which would be posted on the Web. The editorial scope: HIV-AIDS, violence against women, poverty, reproductive rights, political oppression and community development.

Plenty of Stories to Cover

There was no end of stories to cover.

Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, is home to about 4 million. Around 30 percent–the figures vary depending on the counting method–are indigenous, rural communities: Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, Zoque and Tojolabal for the most part, with a sprinkling of Mame, Chuj, Kanjobal, Jacalteco, Lacandon, Katchikel and Mocho.

San Cristobal de las Casas was the flash point for the 1994 New Year’s Day Zapatista Rebellion by opponents of the market-friendly reform push by former President Carlos Salinas.

The conditions that had led to that uprising–on the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect–had not changed and were reflected in the lives of the region’s women. The fallout of the rebellion was also in many ways still waiting to be told.

As in most of rural Mexico, health care–especially reproductive care–is scarce. The handful of newspapers rarely focus on women’s issues.

When asked, as part of their interviews, what they would like to cover, one woman said something like, “When the soldiers were sent in to quell the Zapatista movement, they would come rape the women in their homes while the men were at work.”

Another said, “I want to write about domestic violence because I lived it.”

On the first training day the women and the three faculty members, plus Hegranes, gathered in the library at Casa Na Bolom, a hotel and cultural center that had offered us the use of its facilities.

Nine Disparate Women

We were nine women, “most with little in common,” Hegranes wrote to the board of directors in an e-mail account at the time. “They participate in conversations about honest and thorough journalism as though they have waited their whole lives to say the words that they suddenly find pouring from their mouths.”

The women went on to post several stories over the next year. They have written about everything from gender violence to women’s health to attempts by organic farmers to sell their crops locally instead of exporting the bulk abroad.

Beyond helping the women to give voice, the project has helped to propel the women out of poverty, introducing the fairly foreign concept of upward mobility.

Springing off their work at the institute, some have gone on to other jobs.

No one’s life has been more transformed than that of Juana Perez. In our interview she revealed that she regularly attended workshops and conferences. On top of that she corrected errors on the Spanish literacy test I’d given her. How surprised was I to find that she had a minimal education and until then had been earning her entire living by cleaning people’s houses.

Six months later Hegranes presided over a second training session, halfway around the world in Nepal. One trainee came from an “untouchable” community and brought great insight into what it is to be marginalized in a country where members of her caste commonly work for grain instead of money, despite laws that prohibit that.

Others included a student of English literature, a 41-year-old housewife, a newspaper columnist from a remote village who’d been writing under a male pseudonym.

Sisters a World Apart

“The mood and the energy in the room is just the same as it was that first day down in Chiapas,” Hegranes wrote the board of directors in an e-mail. “But it isn’t just the geography that’s different. This is a different system, different poverty, different persecution. But sitting here thousands of miles from Chiapas, Kalpana, Tara, Devi, Sunny, Anju and Kamala meet their sisters in Mexico on the pages of the curriculum, in the bounds of the training model and within the same opportunity.”

Both training sites, and the institute that runs them, are dedicated to getting women’s stories “out there.”

In Nepal they have been writing about cervical cancer, uterine prolapse, HIV and the booming human trafficking trade in which women and girls are kidnapped and sold into prostitution in India, among other topics.

The Nepal training site is going strong.

The Mexico office is on hiatus as the group discusses its not-for-profit status with the government. But a skeleton crew includes Perez, who works part time as the office assistant. This has enabled her to keep her eldest daughter in school.

I have been following the women’s progress and rooting for them since that recruiting trip. Sometimes I find myself flagging in the face of the frustrations of reporting and merely living in a country that seems so mired in bureaucracy and elitism that it’s almost impossible to get anything done.

But at those times, all I have to do is check out the press institute’s Web site to remind myself of what it’s all about.

Women’s eNews Mexico Bureau Chief Theresa Braine has been based in Mexico for more than four years and has written for People magazine, the Associated Press, Newsday, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization and other publications. She is a board member of the Press Institute for Women in the Developing World.

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