|Work Sustains Bolivian Women and Children|
by Christie R. House*
Fort Worth, TX, April 28, 2008--High in the Illimani Mountains of Bolivia's Altiplano, Justa Mamani weaves shawls in a cooperative with about 20 other women from her village of Catacora. Mamani founded this cooperative and three others in the area, though her formal schooling ended at the fifth grade.
"In the Aymaran culture," Mamani explained, "the custom is for boys to go to school, but for girls to be raised as servants. I didn't have the opportunity to go to school. But now we realize that both boys and girls need to go to school."
That realization came about in her community in part because of the work of the Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia. Mamani was in Fort Worth, Texas, this week to take part in an Advance presentation during The United Methodist Church's General Conference. Despite her lack of formal education, Mamani received invaluable training through the Methodist Women's Federation of Bolivia (FEFEME). She is proud to say that her three daughters have all been able to finish high school.
From the Roots
Mamani became the president of the FEFEME in 1980 when she was just 25 years old. The national office, however, was a tiny space where she lived and worked. Although the majority of church members were women and children, the leadership positions in the national church were held by men. "As a woman, I knew what women could do," she said. "I thought we should raise our own money for our organization. The men had no idea what we could do. I saw how the women suffered in their communities."
The Altiplano is at an altitude of 14,000 to 15,000 ft. above sea level. People eked out a living there growing potatoes. Sometimes the crops froze and Mamani's village had nothing to eat. Women had as many as eight to ten children. They had little or no time to further their education.
Yet, today, most families have four to five children. FEFEME helped to educate women about health and family planning. At first, the men demanded that the women continue to bear more children, but in time, they realized that life was better with fewer children in the family.
FEFEME is truly a grassroots organization. According to Flores, even women in small village churches develop a group infrastructure, conduct elections, and send representatives to national assemblies. The church is organized in 14 districts throughout Bolivia. Though women in every district work on handicrafts, which vary depending on their traditions and ethnic identities, FEFEME has 14 formal co-ops that produce enough woven goods for a wider market distribution. Each of the 14 was asked to produce some of the Advance tote bags distributed at General Conference, for instance.
An Integrated Program
Vaizaga says the problem in the lowlands is that so many people immigrate to Spain to find work. This economic migration is causing a big problem for the community and for the church. Families are divided, fathers leave their wives and children. Sometimes the children get involved in drugs or prostitution.
"As a church, in the midst of this social situation we are trying to find ways to meet the needs of the people. Yet, in my church, we don't even have a pastor. We are working with our own lay leadership."
FEFEME seeks to address the suffering of people in all areas of the country through integrated training programs that alleviate poverty using spiritual, economic, and practical methods. FEFEME has already created three women's centers and plans to build two more. Weekly classes at the centers promote prayer, worship, and Bible studies along with leadership training, vocational training, handicraft management, and community-based health care.
On Hand for Celebration
Interviews conducted in Spanish with the help of translator Joyce Hill, a former missionary and area executive for the General Board of Global Ministries.
* Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook.
Date posted: Apr 28, 2008