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LATIN AMERICA: Black Women on the Bottom Rung

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jun 19 2007 (IPS) - There are at least 75 million black women in Latin America and the Caribbean, but those who occupy high-level political or public administration posts number less than 50. As activists pointed out to IPS this week, black women are at the very bottom of the social ladder in this region.

“The inequality suffered by Afro-descendants is plain to see. There are few or no spaces where we are decision-makers. Our situation is one of the worst,” said Dorotea Wilson, head of the Red de Mujeres Afrolatinoamericanas, Afrocaribeñas y de la Diáspora (Network of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino Women), made up of groups of black women activists from 33 countries.

Poor black women “must make a huge effort against discrimination and xenophobia,” said Wilson, a former mayor and legislator from Nicaragua who is also the head of the non-governmental organisation Voces del Caribe (Caribbean Voices).

Wilson spoke to IPS by telephone from Panama, where she participated Monday and Tuesday along with 30 other women in the Inter-generational Conference of Afro-descendant Women of Latin America, sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Latin America’s 150 million Afro-descendants have failed to make inroads against the marginalisation and segregation that they have historically suffered, and have not gained a significant role in politics or the public administration.

By contrast, indigenous people in the region, who number around 40 million, have become increasingly organised in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, where they have begun to gain political representation.

According to the Network of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino Women, there are less than 50 black women in political decision-making positions in the entire region.

Wilson said the conference in Panama was aimed at networking, strengthening ties and defining a shared agenda for black women, “who have been dispersed.”

The participants plan to present a common position at the 10th Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, to be organised Aug. 6-9 in Quito, Ecuador by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

“We must urgently come together as Afro-descendant women, because we are separated and have not even gotten our governments to count exactly how many of us there are in the region,” said Wilson.

At the August regional conference in Quito, one of the central focuses will be the question of female domestic service. Half of the region’s domestic employees work more than 48 hours a week, receive inadequate pay and have no access to social security coverage, ECLAC reports. In fact, there are millions of domestics who are not even paid.

A large part of the region’s domestics are black or indigenous women. Studies show that more than 90 percent of people of African descent in the region are poor, only have access to the worst paid jobs, and have a low level of education.

In Brazil, for example, 71 percent of black women work in the informal sector of the economy, compared to 65 percent of black men, 61 percent of white women and 48 percent of white men. And whites in Brazil are 2.5 times richer than blacks on average.

In Colombia, meanwhile, 80 percent of blacks live in extreme poverty. And in Cuba, the only socialist country in the region, people of African descent live in the worst housing and have the lowest-paid jobs.

“It is very difficult to be black in our region, and even more so if you are a woman,” said Wilson. “I know that because I myself have often had to suffer degrading humiliations.”

Wilson is from Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region.

“My father worked as a miner for over 48 years. My mother was a homemaker and raised nine children. It was hard for us – six girls and three boys – to make it in this society, but we fought and we did it,” she said.

In 1975, as a nun and missionary, Wilson joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and later took part in the leftist group’s armed struggle, which overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

That year, she became the first female mayor of Puerto Cabezas and was later elected to parliament, representing the Caribbean coastal region.

She remains a member of the FSLN, which, after losing the 1990 elections, returned to power this year under President Daniel Ortega.

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