Just a Little Respect: Community Mothers Fight for Their Rights

September 25, 2007

Behind the hills of southwest Bogotá, one finds a neighborhood that is virtually another city sprawled across the arid fields. Gusty winds blow through Ciudad Bolívar, generating tremendous amounts of dust, erasing the line between earth and sky. Along the few paved streets, the roar of buses and trucks mounts as they shift gears to climb to the last house on the top of the hill. At Cuidad Bolívar’s highest elevation, the temperature is at least ten degrees below that in the rest of the city.

With over a million residents, Ciudad Bolívar is a mushrooming, unplanned satellite of Bogotá. In neighborhoods like this, basic services such as water, electricity and public transportation are not always available. They are obtained and remain available only through the valiant and persistent organizing efforts of its residents, in a tradition of rebusque, a Colombian term describing the tenacity of people to obtain their needs in spite of tremendous difficulties.

In Ciudad Bolívar, a neighborhood completely built by its inhabitants, one finds a large number of women working in the child-care programs that the government instituted in the late 1980s. These programs are known officially as “Community Homes” and “Neighborhood Houses,” run respectively by the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) and the Department of Social Welfare (DABS). Community Homes are run by “Community Mothers” who take neighborhood children into their own homes. Neighborhood Houses are run by “Preschool Mothers” who supervise small children in publicly provided spaces. These programs were designed to take care of the most vulnerable segment of the population: children up to seven years of age living in the poorest urban sectors. Nationwide, there are about 83,000 Community and Preschool Mothers taking care of some 1.5 million children.[1]

The Community Mothers have been struggling for labor rights in the face of the government’s rigid neoliberal policies. Their success illustrates the resilience and the inventiveness of the Colombian popular movement, which has thrived in spite of an indefinite, undeclared state of war, government neglect, social intolerance and political, cultural and economic dislocation. As Colombia’s internal conflict intensifies, and the peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continue sputtering along, the fate of the Community Mothers seems more uncertain now than ever.

Like the struggle to bring water and electricity to Ciudad Bolívar, an intensive community organizing effort led to the creation of the community day care centers. The effort, of course, in the 1970s, was forced by necessity. As parents left their homes for work or in search of sustenance, they were forced to leave their children locked up in their houses or exposed to the dangers of the streets. Many children died trying to light kerosene stoves to heat their food or playing with matches and candles. In their own homes, women began taking care of their neighbors’ children in an act of solidarity. Luz Dary Ayala, a founder of one of the first Neighborhood Houses, remembers: “The women who did not go out to work would get together, and each of us would contribute a pound of flour, some milk or whatever we could afford to feed the children, while their parents were at work.”[2]

The development of the community-organized day care centers came about as a response to the economic, social and political changes of the time. The rapid growth of industry in the cities, especially Bogotá, and the massive in-migration of those escaping the violence and poverty in the countryside were two key factors. Women and children were the most affected, since a large portion of this population consisted of head-of-household and single women.

Political support for the organization of formal day care centers came from university students who worked with the community organizations; some financial support was provided by Bogotá-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The groups were able to obtain spaces for the day care; they charged the parents nominal fees to help offset the costs; and they began asking for food donations from produce markets to provide meals for the children. In a series of subsequent mobilizations, the Community Mothers took over the offices of ICBF, demanding resources for their programs. This form of popular organizing was not recognized by the state until the 1980s. Prior to that, it was considered illegal and was repressed.[3] But by 1988, after over a decade of mobilization, the government launched an official program in which these Community Mothers were enlisted, and women like Luz Dary became government employees under a special category called “volunteer work.”

At the national level, the ICBF-run Community Homes program employs nearly 82,000 Community Mothers who work in their own homes. Each Community Mother takes care of an assigned number of children, cut from 14 to 12 in December 2000. In exchange for their work, Community Mothers receive a stipend that covers the cost of food for the children, kitchen utensils, educational materials and other necessities to run the program. It also includes mandatory training and a bonus for the Community Mother for each child attending, which adds up to less than half the minimum legal wage. DABS runs the Neighborhood Houses throughout the district, where 1,200 Preschool Mothers work in similar conditions, all without a formal wage or benefits. The two government institutions do not assume any further responsibilities for the Community Mothers.

The ICBF signed a special kind of contract, called “Contract of Contribution” with a third party, the Parents Associations of the Community Homes of ICBF, completely excluding the Community Mothers. The official documents use terms such as “social service” and “solidarity work” to describe the functions carried out by the Community Mothers, making it possible for the government to transfer its social obligations to the communities at minimal cost.[4]

In 2000, the typical Community Home received $10 per month from ICBF for educational materials, cleaning supplies and gas. It also received $8.60 per month for food for each child and $20.45 yearly for what is called “lasting material,” which is for the wear and tear on the house—though many Community Mothers complain that this in no way represents the damage to a modest home taking care of 12 to 14 children. Finally, each Community Mother received a bonus of $60 per month (the minimum legal wage was $130). This year the bonus for the Community Mother went down to $54 because, according to ICBF, of the budget deficit and the “economic crisis.” María Eugenia Ramírez of the Latin American Institute of Alternative Legal Services (ILSA) points out that while the state reduces social spending to resolve the economic crisis, it is able to adjust the policies to overcome other crises that have to do with financial sectors and with the war. “In the last years, the Colombian state has invested $12.7 billion to rescue the financial sector, and $636 million to save the banks. However, many consider it exorbitant to invest $13.6 million to better the labor conditions of 82,925 women.”[5]

Many women complain that officials of the two government institutions belittle them at every opportunity they have, using terms such as “that old hack,” asking them in meetings to “shut up, you don’t know anything,” or requiring them to attend training sessions at night, without taking into consideration that the women work anywhere between 8 to 12 hours every day and have children of their own.[6] One woman reports that during a training program, a trainer who had assigned a reading by French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget was admonished by an official of ICBF, saying: “Why did you give them this reading? These women don’t even know where they are standing.”

Flor Alba Pulido, a Preschool Mother, was punished by DABS for openly disagreeing with a recent decision by DABS prohibiting decorations on the walls of the newly renovated Neighborhood Houses. She had argued that the educational work the mothers did with the children should not be limited only to desks and tables. DABS restricted her participation in the program after accusing her of inciting the women to subversion. Flor Alba has repeatedly criticized the officials’ attitude toward institutions regarding senior Community Mothers: “Officials are saying to us, ‘You have to deal with the problem of the older women.’ But we say, if a woman has given 25 or 15 years to this work, must she leave because she is now 40 or 50? They have given the best years of their lives, their youth and health to this work, to the state, and now they are told ‘Now you’re useless.’ One asks, what is the real policy of the government, because right now there is much fear of losing this work, or being restricted like me. I had to sign a paper where I promised not to talk badly about the programs.”

The struggle for Community Mothers’ labor rights was born virtually with the creation of the programs in 1988. The Community Mothers are organized in three unions: SINTRACIHOBI, which was founded 1988 in Ciudad Bolívar; the Association of Community Mothers for a Better Colombia (AMCOLOMBIA), which began in 1991; and the local District Movement of Neighborhood Homes (SINTRADISTRITALES), started in 1994. While these organizations differ in their approach, they agree completely in their final objectives: job stability, a legal minimum wage, social security and benefits. They also seek to improve the service of the Community Homes and Neighborhood Houses, to increase their outreach and to better the working conditions for the Community and Preschool Mothers.

In August 2000, the combined union struggle reached a crucial point with the filing of a lawsuit before the Constitutional Court. The suit challenged the legality of the bonus given to the Community Mothers, and called for the recognition of the labor rights of the Community and Preschool Mothers’ rights as workers. The suit focused on the bonus because “it violated the fundamental rights consecrated in the Constitution, and in the International Pact of the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention Against all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and of conventions of the International Labor Organization, which the Colombian Government has ratified.”[7] The lawsuit received ample attention, with a hearing at a national level and a national meeting at which the Community Mothers themselves decided to endorse it.

In January 2001, the court ruled against the lawsuit, very likely not wanting to commit itself to decisions that had to do with public spending. The Community Mothers are now looking to appeal the verdict in a higher court, and SINTRACIHOBI marched alongside the Central Worker’s Union (CUT) in a national strike this past March, denouncing the program cuts that led to the closure of more Community Homes.

The Community Mothers are now facing an even greater challenge since the crisis of internal refugees exploded once again in the mid 1990s. More and more displaced people are arriving and settling in neighborhoods like Ciudad Bolívar—neighborhoods that are still trying to obtain basic services, putting everyone in a situation of shared misery. The state has failed to come up with a policy that meets the needs of the displaced population and that addresses the increased pressure in housing, education, health and basic services. The vast majority of displaced children end up in Community Homes and Neighborhood Houses. Paulina González of Pedagogical Support Group Corporation, an NGO that has supported the Community Mothers in their struggle, expressed her concerns at a September meeting with Community Mothers in Bogotá: “This problem is sitting there, like a volcano on the verge of an eruption.”

Victoria Maldonado is an independent filmmaker and cofounder of the Colombia Media Project.

1. This is the number of women that appears in the official records. However, it could easily surpass 100,000. María Eugenia Ramírez, “También Tenemos Derechos,” Human Rights Team, ILSA, March 2001.
2. Interview with Author, August 2000.
3. “Cabildo Abierto por Santa Fé de Bogotá y la Reestructuración de DABS,” document presented by the Movement of Neighborhood Homes and the Union of District Workers (SINTRADISTRITALES) in August 1997, p. 9.
4. María Eugenia Ramírez, “También Tenemos Derechos.”
5. Interview with author, Bogotá, August 2000.
6. María Eugenia Ramírez, from author interview, Bogotá, August 2000.

Tags: Colombia, community mothers, popular movements, displaced, violence

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