AWID - 15/04/2011
Banking On Women's Experience
BUENOS AIRES, Apr 11, 2011 (IPS) - Argentina's president is a woman, Cristina Fernández, and the country has one of the highest percentages of women lawmakers in the world. But women also have other leadership roles, outside the political system.

By Marcela Valente

Natalia Garabano, the coordinator of a research project that created a novel Experience Bank, told IPS that "identifying and drawing attention to the valuable experiences of women who are leaders of their social organisations was one of the project's goals."

In a recently published report on this research, 87 women leaders of civil society organisations share their experiences of working for the rights to housing, sexual and reproductive health, education, non-discrimination and non-violence.

Garabano, of the Latin American Justice and Gender Group (ELA), said: "In order to legitimise democracy and make it more robust, it is necessary to promote women's political participation, but in a broad sense, not just through political parties."

Wider participation is not achieved only by increasing access to political office, but also by boosting women's participation in civil society. This broader concept of participation led ELA to develop the LIDERA (Lead) project, which has three components.

First, there is the research project titled "Mujeres participando en ámbitos locales. Banco de experiencias" (Women Participating in Local Communities: Experience Bank), consisting of in-depth interviews with women who are leaders of social organisations in six Argentine cities.

At the same time, a study was carried out on "Sexo y poder" (Sex and Power), about women's participation in decision-making posts in different public spheres, which has not yet been published.

The results were disappointing. Women occupy only 15 percent out of 13,627 decision-making posts in over 4,000 institutions, Garabano said.

The third cornerstone of the project was investigating the track records of women lawmakers at national and provincial levels, to find out more about them: how they came to be elected, what their educational background is, what proposals they are making, and how they manage to reconcile work and family responsibilities.

ELA presented the first component, the Experience Bank, in the lower chamber of Congress on Mar.31. "Women's participation in the local sphere must be strengthened so that their leadership is built and grows on solid foundations and in contact with their social base," Garabano said.

"Raising awareness about these 'ways of getting things done' may inspire action and strategies in different contexts, and spread knowledge about determining factors and ways of overcoming obstacles, making the most of opportunities and networking," she said.

The organisations headed by women that were selected for this project were in the city of Buenos Aires itself, in the municipality of Morón, in the west of the metropolitan area, and in cities in the provinces.

The provincial cities were San Salvador de Jujuy, 1,800 kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires, Mendoza, 1,050 kilometres west of the capital, Neuquén, 1,156 kilometres to the southwest and Rosario, 300 kilometres to the northwest.

The aim of the research was to show how women's leadership emerges and is consolidated at the local level; how women cope with the difficulties they face, and how they engage with the state and its official policies in order to achieve their goals, which are varied.

The Tupac Amaru Neighbourhood Organisation in Jujuy, headed by Milagros Sala, began building clay ovens to bake bread, and soup kitchens to serve free meals to children, at the height of the 2001-2002 social and economic crisis.

By 2003 the group had organised housing cooperatives and productive enterprises, and today has 4,500 housing units in Jujuy, as well as groups offering educational, health and recreational services for vulnerable populations.

"Women are working in construction, in metallurgy and in concrete block factories," says Sala in her description of her experience, which grew out of working in coordination with the Ministries of Social Development and of Infrastructure and Housing.

Another story in the Experience Bank is that of Foundation PH15 for the Arts, headed by Moira Rubio, which teaches photography to young people in Ciudad Oculta (literally "Hidden City"), a shanty town on the fringes of Buenos Aires.

"The goal is not that they should all become photographers," Rubio said. "The point is to show them that they can: they can be recognised as artists, and as persons, without suffering discrimination."

A further example is the Federation of Non-Governmental Entities for Children and Adolescents in Mendoza (FEDEM). Patricia Spoliansky described how they managed to bring influence to bear in order to bring about changes.

"We started to get together to try to have an impact on the design of public policies, and to see what we could do to get the state to listen to us," said Spoliansky. "We were able to get funding for a few projects for children, and we managed to get civil society organisations officially represented on the Provincial Council for Children."

Marta Vitta, head of Fundación Síntesis (Synthesis Foundation) in Rosario, tells how she began working on women's issues, and then moved on to developing solidarity economy programmes.

"I coordinated a lot of women's groups, and there was always a bottleneck over money," Vitta said. "For instance, for a battered woman, the first thing is to 'denaturalise' violence; but afterwards, finances are the key to changing her situation. There were so many women who had no means of surviving."

That was when her organisation decided to make common cause with a proposal by the Ministry of Social Development to finance a "social bank" for the development of microbusinesses.

The report notes that there are recurrent themes in the interviews, such as the importance of creating links to ensure better access to financing and professional advice, or a greater impact on the public arena and its interests.

Almost all the interviews also express the desire to build relationships with public institutions in order to maximise benefits, if necessary through co-management of projects, but without losing the organisation's autonomy.

Finally, the women said that in some cases, social leadership has hidden costs, because of the need for women to balance responsibilities in the home, in paid jobs that cannot always be relinquished, and in community participation.