During my last two weeks in Ecuador I was feeling somewhat lost with all the new information I had gathered. One of my initial hypothesis as I prepared for my trip was that the proliferation of rights under the new constitution was based in individual rights, and a careful avoidance of collective rights. I was trying to make an argument that because the Ecuadorian economy is dependent on oil extraction and the mining of heavy metals, it purposely undermines the establishment collective rights that might challenge the extractivist economy. I was aware that amidst all the flourishing of social rights there was also a strong government campaign against several environmental groups and that President Correa had gone as far as labeling them “developmental terrorists.”
As I began my research I came to understand that this argument did not translate well because the terms “collective rights” were very explicitly written into the constitution as the rights of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian citizens. These collective rights include reparations, land rights, anti-discrimination legislation, affirmative action in education and employment, and some degree of political autonomy for small ethnic enclaves. Furthermore, the rights of nature and the indigenous concept of “Living Well” are also written into the constitution. Following the establishment of the new constitution in 2008 many state funded research groups known as “observatorios” are working to track the how well these new laws and social rights are being implemented. The re-drafting of the constitution in 2007 was extraordinary political moment for its inclusion of a diverse array of social activists and intellectuals who wrote, debated, and approved the constitutional articles and amendments through a democratic process. This accounts for why the Ecuadorian constitution is so expansive in the realm of social rights. After careful consideration I was able to discern that to frame my investigation as a comparison between collective and individual rights was not going to be particularly useful in examining the relationship between social rights and political economy.
In considering the development of individual rights, especially anti-discrimination laws, we have to also look towards the social movements that reinforce these laws or in some case dismantle them. On July 28th, I attended a panel presentation on Afro-Ecuadorian feminism hosted by FLACSO University’s Women and Gender Studies program. The panel consisted of two presenters Olivia Cortez and Sonia Viveros. Olivia Cortez is a professor at San Fransisco University and well-established leader & consultant among women’s organizations in Quito y Guayaquil. The second presenter, Sonia Viveros, is a professor at the University of Guayaquil. Francia Jenny Moreno, a graduate student from the Women and Gender Studies department, moderated the panel. The event was to serve as a space of reflection and analysis on the status of what is black or Afro-Ecuadorian feminism, and whether it can be considered a movement here in Ecuador.
Both presenters began their speech by identifying as Black women and asserting the value of that statement over other terms like mulata or Afro-descendant which serve to dissimulate and distance women from their blackness. They each affirmed that black women’s issues include the issues that are most commonly associated with feminism, such as sexual and reproductive freedom, and then when on to expose how racism and questions of poor women’s basic survival need to be more thoroughly incorporated into the mainstream feminist agenda. Black women have participated in a number of struggles in the coast, urban regions, and rural outskirts and have held leadership positions in these struggles, yet often find issues specific to Afro-Ecuadorian women unmentioned. Olivia Cortez spoke of the influence of black feminists in the US as a prime influence for her political development as a black feminist in Ecuador.
After the panel discussion I met with Francia Jenny Moreno to talk about the panel discussion
Claudia Garriga-Lopez PhD Candidate in American Studies Dept. of Social and Cultural Analysis of New York University
Over the past year I have been keeping track of the work of a group called Casa Trans (Trans House) based in Quito, Ecuador. Casa Trans is both a home for LGBT activists and a political and cultural center where events and meetings are held on a regular basis. Providing safe and affordable housing to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender activist is an important factor that contributes to the vitality of the organization because many of its members experience housing discrimination. Casa Trans was formed in response to the murder of a transgender activist in 2004. The members identify themselves as Transfeministas (transfeminists); they embrace the legacy and history of the feminist movement as their own and see themselves as working to expand the scope of feminism. Casa Trans works on various different projects and campaigns at any given time, but their mainstay is as group in defense of the gender and sexual rights of Ecuadorians. They are resolutely in support of women’s right to choose in a political climate where abortion is a relentlessly controversial topic and many LGBT organizations have refused to weigh in on the topic. Casa Trans is the first LGBT organization in Ecuador that has sought out transgender men and made them part of their organizing efforts. They affirm that some women have penises and some men have vaginas, and thereby refuse a biologist gender binary. One of the members I interviewed said that she is not interested in being identified solely as woman because the term trans marks her experience of transitioning from one gender to another. This is a remarkable contrast from more common approaches to transgender identity as a pathological disease, or a case of being trapped in the wrongly gendered body.
Sign reads “We are all whores”
Upon my return to Quito from the conference in Cuenca I spent many days on the FLACSO campus (Latin American Social Sciences Federation). FLACSO is an international graduate university system; there are five other campuses throughout Latin America. There I met with many of the professors and students from the gender and sexuality studies department. I began to interview people regarding feminism in Ecuador and its relationship to the formation of a neoliberal state.
Before leaving New York City my research interests in Ecuador had focused in on some provocative claims made by Amy Lind in her book Gendered Paradoxes. Lind documented the progressive institutionalization of gender into state functions, NGO structures, and lending policies in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and argued that this happened at the same time that Ecuador was undergoing a period of neoliberalization. Therefore, the mobilization of women and the institutionalization of gender considerations into social planning happened alongside structural adjustment and trade liberalization. To the degree that women’s social organization and volunteer work helped to absorb the shock of the 1998 economic crisis, and of shrinking state services, Lind argues that these were used more in the service of the neoliberal restructuring of the state than towards women’s empowerment or improved quality of life. I came to Ecuador following this line of analysis and found that many of the people I interviewed disagreed with the basic premise of the questions I was asking them. Professor Mercedes Prieto asked me whether it was accurate to speak of neoliberalism as a form of governance that was ever really implemented in Ecuador. Others argued that women’s organizations or NGO’s were not taking over responsibilities of a shrinking state but instead doing the social service work that government structures had never addressed in the first place. President Rafael Correa governs under the slogan of Socialism for the 21st Century, which means that regardless of whether or not Ecuador was ever fully neoliberal in its governance, its present form has officially turned away from that model. The argument that social movements, or women’s organizations, or that the instutionalization of gender considerations in governance, had somehow enabled neoliberalism to take hold in Ecuador didn’t really convince anyone. Continue reading
I arrived in Quito on Friday June 17th and hit the ground running. I met with professor Mercedes Prieto from the Gender Studies department of FLACSO university. Professor Mercedes Prieto was incredibly kind and generous to me. We met for a little under an hour. She listened carefully to what I had to say and then suggested that there are two themes to my work: women’s organizing, and the relationship between NGO’s and the state. She then gave me the names of at least 14 people she thinks I could contact, professors, FLACSO students, feminists, and LGBT activists. Towards the end of our meeting she said that she had been very generous with me, which she was, and that she only wished that professors in the US showed her students equal generosity. I knew what she meant. She had never met me before I wrote her a brief email stating my research interests, my stated research interests were very broad, and yet she took the time to really brainstorm with me about who I should contact. She also suggested several doctoral thesis as reading material during my trip. After she gave me the lists of names she introduced me to the departmental administrator and asked her to provide me with the contact information for the people on that list.
The following Monday I met with a friend of a friend who informed me about a conference happening in Cuenca starting on June 21st and invited me to join her. She said that given my interests in women’s organizing the conference would give me an opportunity to meet with indigenous women organizing in defense of their environment and community. The conference had about 12 different breakout groups and one of them specifically addressed the participation of women in environmental struggles. I attended the breakout meetings for this group on June 21st and 22nd and found that they had a very clearly articulated position on the direct impact of mining on women in affected communities. These included, the devaluation of women’s artisanal labor for men capacity to bring in cash from their work in the mines, less access to clean water forces women to travel longer distances to access it, wherever mines set up there is a large increase in alcoholism and brothels, the health impacts on family members and especially children increases women’s caring labor in the home. They also addressed how women are at the forefront of this struggle because often times men work for the mines and so cannot protest them without getting fired. Women are involved in the day-to-day organizing against mining companies and for that reason they are often targeted by police and private paramilitary troupes for rape in retaliation for their activism. The conference was an eye opening experience in seeing the hostility between the environmentalist movement and the administration of President Rafael Correa. The women presented their finding to the larger conference of about 400 hundred people. By attending the conference I was able to tap into an activist network of people in Quito that I would find very helpful in the coming weeks.
Posted by Claudia Garriga Lopez — PhD Student in Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU