As we drive through Villa Nueva near Guatemala City we pass one of many murals branded with the mayors name; ‘Edwin Escobar, Alcalde para todos’. His face hangs from billboards, street lamps, houses, cars, bus stops. You can’t enter Villa Nueva without being aware that there is a six-foot-black-haired-blue-eyed crusader working for his people in a most unusual way. Edwin Escobar is one a few politicians that has awaken to the realisation that there is a tool in his arsenal that is seldom used but most powerful: women. We pass another mural of Edwin catchphrases this time with the word ‘gay’ graffitied all over it. ‘His machista political opponents say he is weak’ explains Tomasa Santiago, ‘they say he lets women dominate him and run his office’. Tomasa is part of a volunteer network, within the local council’s women’s office, that brings short courses to women in different communities in Villa Nueva, she explains that the volunteers aim to provide women with practical skills in order to enable them to provide for themselves.
To put it in context (without pretending to be an expert on Guatemalan politics etc), in 2010 it was decreed into Guatemalan law that each municipality was to have an ‘Oficina de la Mujer’, a department dedicated to the advancement and support of women. In a country rife with the corruptions and limitations of the developing world what this means is that in most municipalities the office exists only in name. There are three main initiatives of the Oficina De La Mujer: education, legal aid and mental health services. There are 35 communities in Villa Nueva and in each one a woman working as a ‘Leader’ who is chosen by her community to make use of these services. Each leader has a few more women working under and with the volunteer network that brings it up to around 200 women. The leaders bring forward the issues their communities are facing at a monthly meeting of the women’s commission who’s director then passes up to the higher ups and seeks solutions. The two weeks I spend working with these women I can see the main obstacle they face is lack of funding and general ineptitude/indifference from the central government. During the commission’s meeting one leader representing the village of Marianita speaks of the lack of sewage system in their streets and the problems they face with floods of contaminated water. She tells me how they have been petitioning to have this fixed for nearly twenty years. Recently a flood caused by this accumulation of waste destroyed the local rehab centre and a family home next to it. Another leader speaks of a hospital that was never finished and so is missing a roof amongst other crucial items. Another speaks of land bought by her people for new homes who saw their money leave in the hands of a man who has seemingly vanished. Each issue is met with the same promise of a direct request to the mayor.
The practical steps being taken by the women in Villa Nueva to further their communities are pretty brilliant. The volunteer network for instance is a real highlight. The women who are part of this network are unpaid and thus not in implicit support of the current administration. Tomasa Santiago, treasurer of the Network specialises in courses on healthy eating and self esteem. She organises the courses so that she begins in a middle class neighbourhood where she can charge thirty quetzales, she then moves on to working class neighbourhood where she charges twenty and with the funds collected brings the course to poor communities where the people attending aren’t able to pay at all. The course I attended was on natural yoghurt, how to make it and it’s uses. The women come away with knowledge of a basic way to begin a healthy diet whilst simultaneously being equipped with the skills to make a product which they can sell. The Oficina provides opportunities and space for women to sell homemade products. There is around five thousand women currently making use of the free courses offered by the municipalidad.
This body of women proves very useful in other initiatives such as “Aulas en un Dia” (Classrooms in a day), an extreme makeover style project where volunteers get together and build classrooms and other necessities for a school in a day. Though not officially affiliated with the Oficina de la Mujer this project is endorsed by the major’s wife, Gina Lisette Lopez Motta. I take five minutes of her time during one of these projects. She is an advocate for women’s rights and very active in a number of social projects. She’s had a hand in reviving the Oficina de la Mujer and it’s various functions. During our interview she points out that over 75% of the volunteers for the project are women and that a large part of them are leaders from different communities. In her opinion women are particularly well suited for social initiatives because they are at the forefront of the home, they know what their children need. A reporter from a tv station approaches us and asks her for a final comment on the project, “que no dejen de sonar”, “(women) should never stop dreaming”. She breastfeeds through our talk and when we finish she gets up and continues working.
I speak to women from all sorts of backgrounds in the time I spend in Guatemala. Most of them join the Oficina De La Mujer for the sake of their community rather than any fervent political inclination. They readily admit they know they are being mobilised, they acknowledge that most of these initiatives are happening just in time for the election. But they know their importance, and they know that by taking advantage of this particular political strategy they can achieve great things for their people. Escobar’s opponents can graffiti any kind of homophobic slur on a campaign poster but with women comprising over 51% of Villa Nueva’s population it’s the female vote that will determine if Edwin Escobar sees another term in office and maybe one day, the Presidency.