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Exposing the plight of Latin women

Hannah Stewart-Gambino

During the mid- to late-20th century, most of Latin America was governed by military regimes known for introducing wrenching economic policies and widespread political repression.

In countries like Brazil and Chile, one unexpected result of the economic dislocation and human rights violations was the radicalization of poor women, largely through their Catholic parish-level base Christian communities.

Across those countries, these women rose heroically to meet the challenges facing their families and communities under military rule.

That recitation of events is an accepted part of well-chronicled history. What is less well-known is the aftermath of these movements.

"Once these countries returned to democratic rule, it was like this movement never happened," says Hannah Stewart-Gambino, professor of political science at Lehigh and co-author of the recently published book, Activist Faith, the fourth she's written on the dual topics of religion and politics in Latin America. "Very quickly the 'official story' became that traditional political elites were responsible for the transition, and the women who led the massive, grassroots pro-democracy movements disappeared from the narrative. But, for us, the obvious question was, 'What happened to these women? What happened to these movements?'"

To answer those questions, Stewart-Gambino, who also directs Lehigh's Global Citizenship program, and co-author Carol Drogus, a professor of government at Hamilton College, interviewed the poor women in Brazil and Chile who had led their parish-level organizations during the worst military regimes.

"We listened to the voices of the women base community activists in Brazil and Chile 10 to 20 years after the peak of their movement's activism," Stewart-Gambino says. "Their stories convinced us that earlier studies of individual cases and countries were correct in their conclusion that one by-product of the base communities was the personal empowerment of poor women. We were interested in whether there was a larger political legacy -- the ability of the poor to mobilize in defense of their own interests -- beyond individual empowerment."

Daniel Levine, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and scholar of religion and politics in Latin America, called it a "beautifully written book" representing "a major achievement, that gives us analytical tools for studying how movements and activists survive in the doldrums and when a cycle of protest peaks and societies move on."

Stewart-Gambino unearthed "very moving stories of incredible women," she says, offering the example of Maria Socorro of Brazil, who told the authors that her participation in parish-level self-help and human rights organizations during the Brazilian dictatorship led to her own transformation and that of her community. According to this woman, "I began to see that I could do more than clean house, sew. We became real people."

Adds Stewart-Gambino: "I was in Chile at the birth of the protest movement in May of 1983, and I stayed through 1984 during the height of the massive pro-democracy mobilizations. And it was an incredible experience, to be there when Chileans, and particularly the most marginalized of populations -- the poor and women -- began to reclaim their democratic traditions. It was a privilege to witness not only the process of personal empowerment for so many women, but also the extraordinary social movements that they built across the country."

That passion and commitment convinced Stewart-Gambino that "it couldn't be true that these valiant women who had risked their lives on behalf of their families and communities just 'went home' and resumed their domestic routines after the democratic transition. There had to be some sort of legacy from all this, especially given that life in poor areas is not appreciably better for most poor people, even today."

They discovered that an overwhelming number of the women interviewed remained active in their communities, in a variety of ways.

"The management of the networks is not only happening, but very consciously happening," she says. "It's too early to tell how successful they will ultimately be, but the fact that those networks continue to exist does fly in the face of conventional wisdom."

--Linda Harbrecht

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2005

Posted on Thursday, October 13, 2005

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