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When community philanthropy meets gender and politics: Stories from Latin America

Inspired by the growing involvement and leadership of women in the field of philanthropy in the Global North, five years ago we started a research and action programme – ELLAS – Women and Philanthropy – to promote the participation of women in philanthropy in Latin America. After some research we realized that this was, apparently, not the case in our region. Women at the top of our societies were not getting richer, were not becoming the new philanthropists, nor creating their own foundations. However, there was no doubt that women in general were playing a key role in expanding democracy, in defending human and women´s rights, environmental protection and the permanent efforts for peace and justice, in the most inequitable region of the world. Given that philanthropy was not driven by the top of society (or even worse, that the “top” is practically absent), we were compelled to look at what was happening at the community level. Our hypothesis was that there was an invisible community philanthropy movement at the grassroots of society, mainly led by women that were sustaining and expanding democracy.

With financial support from the Global Fund for Community Foundations, we launched an award called GENEROSAS in order to first capture the attention of those women and, secondly, to dig into their stories and practices. More than 80 women from 17 countries were nominated. With the help of an evaluation committee, we finally identified three winners and an additional 20 individuals that deserved to have their stories publicly told.

The first winner is Lucinda Mamani Choque, a Bolivian teacher at a rural school in Calería, by the Titicaca Lake, who is a member of the Aymara indigenous community. She created a youth women´s center for Aymara´s girls, introduced gender violence and women´s discrimination issues in her teachings, and leads public campaigns for the preservation of the Titicaca Lake and the communities that surround it. The second winner, Sonnia Estela España Quiñonez from Guayaquil, Ecuador, leads the Afro-Ecuadorian Association of Progressive Women. They have created a social business called Africa Mía that runs a traditional food restaurant, sewing workshops for women, community tourism and micro-credit for their members. The third award was for Rosa Vilches Valencia from Chile, who mobilizes women in the northern city of Arica to generate jobs in the construction business and advocate for women´s rights. Those stories ended up in an e-book: “La rebelión de lo cotidiano. Mujeres generosas que cambian América Latina” (or “The rebellion of the everyday. Generous women changing Latin America”).

What does these stories, coming from a diversity of community settings in Latin America, tell us? First of all, that the simple fact of putting an eye on them (through the selection process and interviews) was extremely important because it was perceived as recognition. These are women that have collectively been fighting, against all odds, to move their causes forward with little or no support from donors or governments. Their strength and power lies not in the funds they can raise but on the variety of human and material resources they can mobilize. Visibility for them means “We are not alone.”

Second, they showed us that communities are not the place where just the good guys are. In every community the good, the bad and the ugly interplay all the time: drug dealers, human traffickers, patriarchal structures, corrupted security forces and suspected politicians interact, negotiate, and struggle with community initiatives to improve the quality of life for all, in particular women. The tensions among the various players are present all the time.

Third, these women are philanthropists (even if they are not aware) but not bountiful ladies; they are activists and militants, they give in a variety of ways, they bring together people, they innovate and create new forms of addressing old community issues, they mobilize resources – including donating their own houses for a library, a school or a centre for battered women. They put their own lives at risk, which is their largest asset.

Fourth, they are creating an alternative narrative about community development that goes well beyond the classic idea of providing essential services like water, transportation, sewerage or electricity. They are also tackling problems like gender violence, communications, bio-cultural heritage of indigenous people, racism, or sexual and reproductive rights. They are embracing the new paradigm of “Buen vivir.”

Fifth, they deal with power all the time. They confront power, for instance, when they question how the judicial system and the police deals with pregnant adolescents, when they demand from the local authorities or when they challenge the media on how they describe and stigmatize their black or mestizo neighbourhoods. They fear the power of paramilitary groups that kill people for no reason in their territories, or of human traffickers that kidnap their daughters, or of drug dealers that steal their youngsters. They continuously build their own power when they decide to organize and act instead of remaining passive. The power shift is permanent.

In other words, what the stories of “La rebelión de lo cotidiano” are telling us is that when philanthropy and generosity are deployed at the grassroots level addressing the burning issues in the communities, this is essentially a political struggle that deals with power. Furthermore, that those women are at the forefront of this unequal political battle, and expressing more than anyone else why “gender matters” and is key for the development of Latin America.

By: Florencia Roitstein & Andrés Thompson

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