La Garrucha, Chiapas
December 28, 2007
Mexico’s indigenous people suffer serious disadvantages related to sexual and reproductive health. Most Mexican women in urban areas now have access to modern family planning methods and reasonable hospital care in case of emergencies related to labor and birth. But rural women, and particularly rural indigenous women, lack access to these services to ensure their reproductive and sexual choice and rights. These gaps in services are on of the main reasons that Mexico may not achieve the Millennium Development Goal for reducing deaths associated with labor and birth (maternal mortality).
In indigenous communities, poverty, limited health services, long-distances to hospitals, and in some cases, the lack of value given to women’s health, contribute to these needless deaths. International experts agree that ensuring women’s rights and full participation are cornerstones for improving sexual and reproductive health and promoting human development. The Mexican government has affirmed its commitment to these goals through various international conventions, including the International Conference on Population and Development (1994) and the Millennium Development Goals (2000).
Independent of the Mexican government, Zapatista women and their communities are seeking to improve sexual and reproductive rights on the foundation of women’s rights and participation. Not very long ago, the situation for these rural indigenous women from Chiapas was grim. Adriana, an unmarried Zapastista woman says: “In the past we were only good to look after the family and the house and they sold us like animals.” On the coffee plantations, women suffered sexual harassment from the landowners, and if the women or their parents resisted, they were rounded up and punished and the women were raped. Women weren’t allowed to choose their own husbands. If they were lucky, their father chose their husband. If they were unlucky, a suitor asked the landowner for the woman’s hand. In this case, many of the women had to have sex with the boss until he tired of her and passed her on to the spouse. Today, Adriana says: “Our parents have started to learn that we have the same rights as men.”
Commander Rosalinda of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) states that before the establishment of the autonomous communities: “Only men had rights, even our parents said that women weren’t worth anything. Our rights were crushed. If we participated in meetings, the men made fun of us. We weren’t allowed to go out in the street. We only worked in the house and taking care of the animals. Our grandmothers worked in the corn field (milpa) and then came home to work and wash the clothes, while the men had time to go out and have fun.” She goes on to say that: “Part of the collective work after the uprising was to help women see that they have rights, the same as the men.” These changes are having an impact in women’s lives, and promoting community respect for their sexual and reproductive rights.
Grandmother Elisa says that today: “Our daughters marry as they wish, they are not forced. The go where their destiny and their luck leads them. Now we know our rights as women, to go where we want and to work, not only the men.” Mireilla, a young married Zapatista says: “I married after ’94 [the armed uprising] and no one made me marry. I chose my husband. We also give freedom to our children because children also have rights, just like adults”.
Rosaura, a Zapatista community health promoter says that before the 1994 uprising women’s health wasn’t a priority for the government or for the community: “Sometimes the men didn’t worry about our health, they just waited to see if we would get better.” Medical attention in their communities was very limited and many women died during or after labor and birth, or because of sexually transmitted infections. Transporting women to hospitals in obstetric emergencies was and continues to be a problem because of lack of roads and limited radio communication. Traditional midwives lacked training and materials, such as gloves.
Today the Zapatistas run a health system autonomous from the Mexican government that includes community educators, trained midwives, community clinics and an autonomous hospital. Sexual and reproductive health is a priority supported through ongoing community based education on sexually transmitted infections, diagnosis for the human papiloma virus and cervical cancer, family planning, and preventative health care before, during and after pregnancy and birth. However, there are ongoing economic and human challenges: they lack sufficient specially trained personnel, medical equipment and essential medicines. And what about condom use in Zapatista communities? Rosaura says “Yes, they are recognized and some men and women use them, but it is the decision of each individual.”
Armed uprising may not be the path to ensuring women’s rights for all communities, but it is clear that since 1994 the Zapatistas have made considerable gains in transforming an extremely macho indigenous culture into one where women participate fully and their rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights, are promoted.