Ninth Conference of Spouses of Heads of State and Government of the Americas


Stories of Canada’s Development Cooperation with the Americas

Columbia: Empowering Women

Although Colombian women make important contributions to their country's economy, culture and social well-being, less than 8% of elected representatives at the local level are women. Indigenous and black women have a particularly low rate of participation in the political process. In most sectors of society, Colombian women tend to have very little power to make decisions on matters that affect their lives, and they experience significant discrimination in the workplace, in education and in the justice system. A concerted effort is needed to increase public acceptance of women in leadership roles, and, more specifically, to increase the number of female elected representatives in local and regional politics.

Starting in 1994, the Canadian International Development Agency's (CIDA) Gender Equity Fund began investing $850,000 Cdn. in a five-year programme to promote the participation of women in local institutions and elected bodies. The eight projects within this programme are implemented by several different women's groups, community organizations, and one university, all based in Colombia.

The project includes three basic elements: public awareness of the value of electing female candidates as local representatives; literacy programmes designed to facilitate broader participation by disadvantaged women in the political process; and leadership training for women who want to run for office.

The public acceptance campaign was directed to both men and women. Over 800 men have taken part in workshops and public debates on gender and political participation. In addition, the 2,000 manuals on the subject that have been disseminated in several regions have raised awareness of gender equity issues, and their connection to improving the opportunities for leadership roles for women, and the quality of local policies in general.

Eleven separate literacy projects are giving over 500 indigenous women the reading and writing skills they need to participate more effectively in local decision-making.

More than 3,000 women, including indigenous and black women, have taken advantage of training courses in leadership, negotiation, local management and public speaking, in order to develop the skills they need to confidently run for office.

While the political participation of women remains low throughout Colombia, in communities and regions assisted by CIDA, it has increased by fifty percent between 1995 and March 1997. In the October 1997 municipal elections, many women were nominated for positions such as governor, mayor and municipal councillor. Thanks to the improved quality of proposals being drawn up by women's groups, women's needs are now being taken into official consideration in the municipal plans of 4 communities.

The projects are creating new networks and strengthening the capacity of existing grassroots women's organizations to work toward meeting women's needs and advancing their interests. Over 50,000 people have signed in support of creating a national lobby group on women's issues.

With a more effective voice and a greater share of power, Colombian women are gaining the means to improve the quality of their lives.

Brazil: Opening Doors for Women

Brazilian women have made many important sacrifices and contributions to help transform their country into the most influential economic and political force in South America. Millions of Brazilian women have joined the labour force in the last 30 years.

But attitudes change more slowly than economic realities. In some regions, such as the more traditional North-East, women have found it very difficult to secure better-paying jobs in the industrial sector. At Brazil's main vocational training institute, called SENAI, long-entrenched cultural attitudes discouraged or even prohibited women from enrolling in programs such as electronics or mechanics. Many companies refused to hire qualified women on the grounds that they might get pregnant, or were too weak to work with heavy machinery.

Today, as partners in a larger project and seven years of assistance from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and a number of Canadian technical institutions, the "male face" of Brazil's foremost vocational training network has been transformed. SENAI, which operates a network of over 800 training centres throughout Brazil, with over one million students a year and over 6000 instructors, has become a decidedly more practical supporter of working women. Between 1990 and 1996, CIDA contributed $8 million Cdn to the SENAI Institutional Strengthening Project, which was implemented by the CIDE Ryerson Corporation (CRC).

SENAI now systematically reviews all training materials and research projects to eliminate gender bias. SENAI has taken a lead role in encouraging and assisting companies to hire women in male-dominated jobs such as textile machine operator or aluminum processing operator. SENAI ensured that Brazilian women have equal access to study opportunities in Canada. By the end of the project, 39 percent of all fellowship recipients were women. Also, more women than ever are taking the SENAI technical training. In one state alone, enrolment jumped from 13% to 31% in seven years.

The sensitization programme operated on many fronts. A publicity campaign was mounted to show technical teachers, industry experts and potential female students that women can do "men's work." This included the distribution of 5,550 posters and pamphlets portraying local successful women who already work in non-traditional manufacturing and technical jobs. Companies that showed a willingness to hire women were showcased as models. The stories were also told in newspapers articles, a television appearance and presentations to high school students.

Thanks in part to CIDA, SENAI's culture, recruiting practices, and teaching materials ¿ have undergone a lasting transformation. For women in Brazil, the horizons now look a little bit broader.

Turning on a Tap: Canadian Assistance Reach Honduras with drinkable water

Hurricane Mitch tested new-found skills in the Honduran communities of La Mina and Cayo Blanco. Their water and sanitation system, built with the assistance of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and CARE Canada, had been damaged by fallen trees and rocks. But the Canadian support provided the communities more than a system. It ensured that people had the skills to repair the system themselves.

Water and sanitation is a priority of Canadian assistance because of its impact on the health of a community. More than three million people worldwide die each year from diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever, contracted from water which is unfit for human consumption.

In Honduras, where 40 percent of the rural population has no access to water, Canadian assistance will reach 41,000 people with new water and sanitation systems by the end of 2001.

The CARE Canada projects in central Honduras and along the Caribbean coast provide technical assistance, health training and support for the development of committees responsible for the water systems. The communities provide more than 70 percent of the labour and materials.

For community member Ana María Cárcamo, turning on a tap in La Mina is simple now but represents a major achievement for the community.

"When water started to flow from the taps, even the children were happy. We will be grateful our whole lives."

"All of us take care of it," says Cárcamo. "We can't afford to lose it. These things don't come along often in life."