Indigenous women in Mexico fight for their right to win and inherit land
Twelve hours away from the city of Chihuahua in the north of Mexico is a small community called Baborigame. It is here, in the middle of the imposing Sierra Tepehuana, where Aurelia Rivas is carrying out a project: “Indigenous women and land tenancy in the Baborigame region”; she is a grantee of Semillas’ Land Rights Programme.
Aurelia is a 26-year-old Tepehuan Indian (they call themselves Odami People). She describes herself as a cheerful, strong person, who always fights for her ideals, is rebellious and capable of achieving anything she desires. She goes from ranch to ranch to talk to people, especially women, travelling along dirt paths and often spends weeks without access to phone or internet services.
The Baborigame is made up of 426 community members, (343 men and 83 women). Approximately, 70% are indigenous people and the rest are mestizos. Although everyone is expected to participate in the decision making process, most decisions are made by the mestizos. Women attend assembly meetings as well, but do not participate: they don’t speak, and they don’t contribute to the decision-making process:
“When I ask the local women if they own land, their answer is no, although they say they have land to plant corn (…) the men always say that the women ‘help’ with the land; they do not recognize that they actually work on the land and have a right to it”, says Aurelia.
In 2008, Semillas, a non-governmental organisation that aims aims to break the traditional gender inequalities in Mexico through sponsorship of dozens of local initiatives, embarked on a new programme to support indigenous women’s land rights in Mexico. The first three years of the programme were funded by the Dutch Government through its MDG3 fund. The programme supports indigenous women leaders to campaign for a woman’s right to own and inherit land. Indigenous women leaders are supported and trained to educate and raise awareness within the local communities, to campaign and lobby at community assemblies, with state authorities, within the general population and at a national and international level.
Despite the importance of land for indigenous women living in rural areas and the fact that they dominate agricultural work, women do not generally inherit or have rights to land. Government statistics from 2009 demonstrate that out of the 12.3 million women living in the rural sector, only 5% (661,000) had land rights (www.inegi.gob.mx). In addition, women are not allowed to participate in communal land assemblies and therefore lose the possibility of accessing communal land. In many communities, local assemblies do not recognise women’s right to land inheritance, even in cases where husbands or other male relatives have died. Furthermore, there is very limited access to technological support, credit or any other economic resources from the State to subsidize women’s agricultural activities.
Today there is increased rural to urban migration and land has lost much of its value. As a result, economic opportunities for women living in the rural sector have worsened. Migration of men to the United States has placed women in an even more vulnerable position because men sometimes decide to sell or transfer their land, causing women to lose their homes and family protection. Land provides a structure for social life and therefore it constitutes not only a means of production but the main source of social participation in the collective decision making processes.
Access to, and control over land would empower millions of rural women to improve their livelihoods and those of their families. There is a strong need to implement changes at various levels: within the indigenous family structure, the community, the local authority and within the national legal framework (the Mexican legal system does not include explicit legislation regarding women’s land, property and inheritance rights).
Aurelia, who is a lawyer by profession, wants the women of Baborigame to recognize their rights, and works hard to make them aware of the necessary procedures which might enable them to inherit land. “Once they know their rights, they will start to exercise them, and they’ll participate in the decision making process in their communities”.
She is also working with women who are already landowners, to strengthen them, and make them active participants in assembly meetings. “Women are the main land workers, since they are the ones that carry out all the agricultural work, whereas most men go to look for other jobs”, Aurelia points out.
Throughout the course of the project, Aurelia has identified groups of women that are interested in knowing more about human rights and gender issues. She has established important alliances with different authorities: traditional, educational and municipal. Her work has struck a chord with many widows who feel they deserve to be land-holders and deserve to have a voice in the assemblies.
“Taking on this project has changed me. I am now more open. I have learned to lobby and negotiate which I had never done before. I’m more empowered, and I value my culture more highly. The support from Semillas has been fundamental. Their financial support has allowed me to carry out vital activities, and their moral support has allowed me to get help with questions and doubts I have had along the way; Semillas has also allowed me to participate in workshops and organized meetings with other grantees. Without this, I would not have been able to accomplish as much,” concludes Aurelia.
Notwithstanding such success stories, there is still much to be done. More women leaders such as Aurelia are needed; the issue needs to achieve greater visibility and a national movement calling for women’s land rights needs to be strengthened through the participation of other civil society organisations. Despite the urgency and importance of the situation, there are very few organisations working to improve women’s access to land, let alone a national movement or network that integrates these issues into the women’s rights movement in Mexico.