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Afro-descendant Women Organise Towards the Decade for People of African Descent and Beyond

AWID spoke with Dorotea Wilson, general coordinator of the Afro-descendant women in Latin America, the Caribbean (LAC) and the Diaspora, about the situation of Afro-descendant women in the region and how they are organizing and preparing for the Decade for People of African Descent.

AWID: What is the situation of Afro-descendant women in the region?

Dorotea Wilson (DW): In the region, Afro-descendant populations, and particularly women, have been rendered invisible in terms of information, quantitative and qualitative data, and this has resulted in the lack of creation and promotion of public policies that favour the needs of black women. The situation is complicated by the gender inequalities that characterize the patriarchal society, placing women in a position of subordination. And because of the racism that exists in our societies, they are part of impoverished populations with little and/or no access to basic services like health, education, and productive resources as land, credit and housing.

Statistics clearly show inequalities in employment. For instance, in Cuba, overall unemployment is 1.6%, but even though Afro-descendant women constitute 46% of the country’s labour force, their unemployment rate reaches 2%.  In Costa Rica, Afro-descendant women have been discriminated against in access to employment, despite having higher levels of education, and most of them are bilingual. They are scarcely represented in management and leading positions or in the workplace, and poverty is over-represented in Afro-descendant majority population areas. In the Dominican Republic census and other official surveys, data fails to include any ethnic-racial categories so there is no data available on this population group as a whole, or on Afro-descendant women in particular.

AWID: What are the key issues and how should they be tackled so that Afro-descendant women in the region can realize their rights?

DW: The first step is to have States acknowledge that there is racism in Latin America and the Caribbean. Racism has to be confronted, because the lack of opportunities I mentioned earlier are often a product of racism, xenophobia, intolerance and exclusion. Unemployment and poverty are deeply linked to them.

AWID: How should racism be confronted?

DW: Before anything else, we need to understand that contemporary racism is an ideology built on the Neoliberal economic model, that is rooted in the colonization and conquest of the African continent that started with the trans-Atlantic traffic of African persons turned into slaves for developing and exploiting resources on the American continent. Racism is thus based on an economic structure that ideologically builds cultural and social justifications to place the White race as the prototype of the human, and thus superior to all other ethnic-racial groups, and particularly to those of African origin that were defined as the “Black” race. Even today, indigenous people and Afro-descendants are cheaper labour in the region.

Nowadays, racism is identified more as a social and cultural problem than as an economic problem, so we need to deconstruct this through education, campaigns and changing the University curricula, because many of them treat racism as something normal, a daily matter, and because of that many Black people have not yet embraced their identity.

In spite of national development, of racism having been abolished more then 300 years ago, of human rights having been recognized for more than 50 years and of democratic processes in the region, our countries’ democratic structures are based on a racist model in which exclusion is clearly manifested. It is Us, the more than 200 million of Afro-descendants in the Americas, who suffer it.  And more than 50% are women.

AWID: What does the Women’s Network expect from this International Decade? Are you planning any actions?

DW: We think this Decade is a great opportunity for advancing our rights. The United Nations has its own agenda for the Decade, endorsed by its Member States. This means they are committing to comprehensive and quality healthcare for women and to education for all, and the need to create and promote economic policies that will help to fight poverty, etc.

Our Network, present in 22 countries across the region, are pushing for a series of claims that are part of our local and national agendas and we want to continue doing international advocacy, as we did in Cairo, Beijing and Durban. We are demanding visibility in national census and statistics; protection for children, adolescents and youth; protection for the environment; food safety and sovereignty; protection for migrants; recovering our legacy and having it recognized; access to justice; citizens’ security; and our sexual and reproductive rights.

We already have working groups and experts developing indicators for the Post-2015 Agenda and we are contributing to that process. We indeed believe that this Decade offers us an opportunity to present our agenda and we want to do it on different fronts, including the women’s and the Afro-descendant movements in their struggles.   We also want our allies and alliances to advocate for our agenda, because in those 22 countries there are Black women, Indigenous women, Non-Black women, feminists, women’s movements… so we want our agenda to be part of a comprehensive agenda that can be visible on all those fronts. This is also why we are speaking of International Cooperation, because we are telling States, institutions and governments in each country that they must make commitments and have budgets to realize them. We always require the support of cooperation agencies for our actions.

AWID: On June 26-28 the First Latin American Summit of Afro-descendant Women Leaders from the Americas took place in Nicaragua. What were the results of this Summit?

DW: Two tools that we consider essential for our actions were approved. We built our “Political Platform Towards the International Decade for People of African Descent”, which includes 17 issues and 71 claims for advocacy with the States in each country on the continent. In addition we built an instrument for Monitoring. With both tools we are going to work on the 17 issues and we will prioritize a few each year, promote and monitor them, with concrete goals so we don’t get frustrated. These tools will allow us to organize the work in this next decade. At the end of the Decade we will be able to assess what worked well, what was achieved and what fell by the wayside.

Now comes a second, post-Summit, step, which is to develop National Work plans and lobby States from the local to the national levels for their effective implementation and for carrying out a coordinated monitoring process. A country might choose three issues for a year while another one decides to take on just one, with its indicators and goals – which is what we will be developing now. We want to have a first Work plan for July 2015-July 2016, follow it up, evaluate it and then choose other issues for the next year, and so on.

The Network’s webpage will have an Observatory and we will feed it with the axes and goals selected by the different countries, and with what will be happening along the way.

AWID: Besides agreeing on those tools, what else was important about this First Summit?

DW: Bringing together these 254 Afro-descendant women leaders was key. We had the chance to exchange information and views on our realities in each country, and we reached consensus for our actions in the coming years. We were also very effective in getting funding agencies to commit together with us so this Political Platform can effectively pull through and also create an Afro-descendant Women’s Fund for the Decade.

After this Summit we will have to work to make Us visible in national statistics, because in 2016 -2018 many countries will undergo a census and we are telling them that the ethnic-racial category must be included.

We are now engaged in dialogue with Indigenous, feminist and other Black women leaders who are not part of the Network but are in elected positions because we want to articulate the next steps with them.

What was agreed at the Summit is that we want to transform the reality Black women experience in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is why we have launched the Platform and the demands, to move forward in realizing our rights.

We want afro descent women to have a decent life, access to jobs, to funding for their productive enterprises; and have access to education, to health, that their sexual and reproductive health rights are respected, that we are visible in the statistics is each country so that women leaders of African descent in public offices can decide directly on our needs and interests.