In working through my notes from a recent visit to the Chaco region of Argentina and Bolivia, I’ve had some good back and forth with my CWS colleagues in Buenos Aires.
One of the things we’ve discussed is what “development” means. The term has come to mean different things to different people. Some do not like the word when it implies economic development along the lines of the United States. (Personally, I think the term is most useful when it means, in the most generous and broadest sense, improving the quality of life for those who are poor.)
Talking about development in the United States is often tricky because we North Americans perhaps pay too much emphasis on the concrete – in other words, getting things done. As my CWS colleague Fionuala Cregan notes, for many of us development means “building a school, providing seeds and tools, wells for water.” We wouldn’t be CWS if we didn’t lift these things up — the concrete is something to cherish. It’s also part of our DNA as North Americans, and a cornerstone of what humanitarian groups do.
But there is another way of looking at development – the need to invest in training for leaders and other community members. That is a more subtle and quiet approach to development but it deserves attention and praise.
An “outside” evaluation of our Chaco program done in 2012 noted that because of CWS’s work, particularly in leadership training for indigenous communities, women gained more confidence in the political realm. Also helpful: members of indigenous communities showed a more proactive, confident side as they managed the tasks of community development and reclaiming ancestral lands. (Men in the communities, the study noted, said that often “women were better organized and more intelligent than themselves.”)
The report also said this: “(In) terms of strengthening self-esteem, empowerment and capacity building (the Chaco program) has enabled personal and organizational changes in the power structures in indigenous organizations, with greater participation of women and a greater appreciation by men of the political role played by women.”
Translated from NGO-speak, that means women have claimed their voice and begun finding ways to better participate in the work of their communities.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems still, or that there is total gender equality in these communities. But to boost the confidence of women (and of men, too) who were once hesitant to speak out about problems in their communities is a big step forward.
On my recent visit, I spoke to women in one community who had experienced that change. Maria Silvia Romero, 34, trained as a health care worker, lives in Lote 75, a small community on the outskirts of the northern Argentine city of Embarcación.
Romero, a member of the Wichi ethnic group, participated in a transnational meeting of indigenous women held in 2012 in Paraguay. “That was a special experience because we were able to see the challenges others face and also shared our experiences and learned that we had things to offer our community,” she said.
Luckily for Romero, she has male relatives who support the empowerment of women. Not all women have been so lucky. One woman active in the local Lote 75 women’s group was threatened by her husband when she would not end her participation in civic affairs. The threats led to a physical assault: the woman lost her front teeth. However, that horrific act of domestic violence didn’t stop the woman. Romero recalled with pride that the woman persisted and eventually became head of the women’s group.
That’s an example of gender and civic leadership – and is a different, but no less important, kind of “development” in a region where CWS is working to improve the quality of life for people.
Chris Herlinger is CWS’s senior writer