A History of Effective and Affective Struggle for all Women’s RightsOpen letter to rural women fighting for and dreaming of a better world
My name is Rita Teixeira. I’m from the State of Pará, in northern Brazil, and my origins have always been linked to work in the fields and the countryside. I grew up with - and continue to grow with - agriculture. I’ve always sown and planted. I have achieved gains and aches and pains. The most literal of these aches is the one I feel in my back, due to my work (always heavy) in the fields, with my parents. But the pain from the lack of rights is always latent. That’s why I take a deep breath and continue. I’m engaged in an effective and affective struggle.
I am responding to an invitation from the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) in the form of an open letter, and I do so with affection and hope. I summarize a long history of twenty years in the Women’s Movement of Northeast Para (MMNEPA). I, Rita, devote my days and nights and dedicate my life to achieving a just and egalitarian society, where women have rights (such as access to health care and recognition of their traditional knowledge), and policies to guarantee their physical, moral and civil integrity, along with access to land, water and an abundant life.
I fight not only because I was born and raised in an environment of hardship. I do so because conformism is not a part of me, and because I cannot (and do not wish to) silence my inner voice... My voice, after all, resounds in many women. In all rural women who feel in their skin what I feel, and in all non-rural, urban women who, thanks to empathy –that very female ability - can put themselves in our place and embrace our struggle. Women’s unity is fundamental.
I am responding to an invitation from the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) in the form of an open letter, and I do so with affection and hope.
And so, together with women of different ages and with specialized institutions, I’m committed to transforming our reality. I dream of restructuring the patriarchal society which, I believe, is even more violent and unfair in the region where I live.
A tool for achieving autonomy
Violence, urgency and injustice. Transformation, rights, dedication. These half dozen words are among the most common in my speech and in my life. They’re in my discourse, and that of my colleagues, in our hearts, in our dreams and in our routines. They’re derived from pain and the will to change and prosper, nourishing our hopes, the certainty that it is possible. Because yes we can! We know that we have the right and will never tire of searching and trying out tools to achieve our freedom and prosperity. There are many roads; here I describe just one of them.
Violence, urgency and injustice. Transformation, rights, dedication. These half dozen words are among the most common in my speech and in my life.
The agroecology primer (cartilla agroecólogica) is a practical example of an opportunity for development. Apparently, it’s something very simple: a notebook for planning, organizing and monitoring a family farmer’s time, investment and financial profits.
But it is much more than that: it is a political and educational tool that encourages women farmers to claim their visibility, their strength and their autonomy.
This joint project of the Women’s Work Group of the National Agroecology Alliance (ANA), with the Center for Alternative Technologies and the Federal University of Viçosa (in Minas Gerais), has the backing of Brazil’s Special Secretariat for Family Farming and Agrarian Development (SEAD).
This instrument was created after a year of field studies in the area of Mata Mineira, confirming the power and strength of women’s production in the so-called family agriculture sector. In other words, it is a tool derived from women’s leadership in Brazil’s agro-ecological farms, for the women of Brazil’s agro-ecological sectors.
It is a notebook, but it is also a mirror in which women can see themselves as they are: powerful. And they can recognize themselves as such- powerful – in order to live that way.
The notebooks are currently used in all five regions of Brazil (North, Northeast, Center-West, Southeast and South), and therefore in all the Amazon states. Their use is monitored and encouraged, together with the exchange of knowledge and experiences among the women who use this tool.
A total of 1,000 women are participating in this initiative. They no longer consider themselves as their husbands’ “helpers”, but as protagonists who are deserving of their rights. Thanks to the notebooks, it has been proven that women’s output is almost double that of men. But there is more: the “libreta” suggests options to women farmers for signing or not signing new contracts, or analyzing the seasonality of crops, which are changing as a result of climate change.
It is important to emphasize that the notebooks not only improve women’s self-esteem at work, but also in the personal sphere. The social emancipation of those who have adhered to this formula is evident.
In a very special way, I recall the story of Doña Nega, a colleague from the village of Careiro Castanho, in the State of Amazonas. This 49 year-old woman has made a new life for herself, using the tip of her pencil, the pages of her notebook and her hoe. She discovered a strong woman within herself and gained knowledge through her own experiences. The result was emancipation.
Every day, she records her achievements in her notebook and in her personal life.
Doña Nega frequently attends workshops at Casa del Río, a philanthropic organization in the state of Amazonas that promotes the use of the agro-ecological primer, or textbook. Doña Nega and her notebook are companions. Every day, she records her achievements in her notebook and in her personal life. Every day, she plans, dreams, builds her self-esteem and develops her knowledge. In fact, the notebook methodology encourages an appreciation of the “natural” or “ancestral” knowledge, thereby giving women even more encouragement and confidence so that they can make agriculture (and life) evolve toward a more careful approach, without violence toward the Earth, for themselves, for the environment and for humankind. It all has to do with cycles, with unity and with nutrition and health, in their broadest (and feminine) sense.
I also remember Benedita, known as Bena in the community of Igarapé Merim. She is a very powerful and successful woman, a woman of struggle. She is a community leader, a referent and an inspiration in her municipality. After using the notebook, this farmer not only dramatically increased her production but also her marketing. She sells her produce at home, from door to door and also at fairs. She is tireless, admirable and tries to share her knowledge and involve other women in the struggle for greater autonomy and emancipation.
I couldn´t speak about inspiring women without mentioning and paying tribute to Regiane Guimarães, a farmer and rural leader who was murdered in 1996. Undoubtedly, she was our greatest loss and the greatest sorrow of our struggle. A man executed her and was then killed by the police. Violence followed violence, while the crime bosses still remain unpunished. More than twenty years have passed, and everyone knows who they are. And we all know that they want exactly the opposite of what we want. We want our value and our potential to be recognized, and our rights to be recognized.
That is why we join together. During meetings it’s very clear that unity is synonymous with power. If I’m now a social assistant, active, with a diploma, it’s because I had the support of many women who believed (and still believe) in me, and therefore made me believe in my own potential. Among my personal achievements, my diploma is the most valuable. And it’s not just mine, but belongs to all of us. That’s the importance of meeting face to face and exchanging experiences. Sitting in a circle we share our concerns and knowledge, we give ourselves to each other. I repeat, it’s an affective and effective process.
Our circles, our meetings, are mirrors. A way of seeing each other, of existing, evolving.
Women’s capacity for mobilization and organization has no limits. And –look – it’s about organization, struggle, unity. It’s about pain and achievement. Agroecology is also a woman, it is female. And in these regions agroecology, which is so popular, is no longer a novelty, but the only reality. Yes, and this time we have success. Now, imagine how much greater that success could be if we had public policies to support and increase development and training projects. Imagine!
It’s good to dream and take action in order to transform. Our notebooks enjoy the support of initiatives such as the PAA (Food Procurement Program) and the PNAE (National School Feeding Program). They help us market the products with fair prices. Just two sources of support. Can you imagine if there were 20, 200 or 2,000? Brazil is huge.
Therefore, once again, I extend an invitation: imagine a different reality, with these words (and realities) that I’ve written about (and repeated) here.
Other initiatives are also essential in this battle, such as ANA (National Agroecology Alliance) and RMERA (Network of Women Entrepreneurs of Amazonia). Yes, I say battle. Because it’s not easy to have a voice, much less to make ourselves heard. We women understand that dialogue (having a voice, making yourself heard, listening and doing) is the way forward. And that is simply why I’m here, with my words and the struggle and dreams of all my colleagues, and of all their descendants and ancestors.
Daring to dream
Clearly, imagination forms part of the plan and the dream. Therefore, once again, I extend an invitation: imagine a different reality, with these words (and realities) that I’ve written about (and repeated) here. I refer to transformation, to rights, to dedication. Simply include them in your thoughts. Into this scenario, add water, land, health, security. Women politicians and women in politics (because there’s a clear difference). Imagine Regiane alive, Doña Bene even more prosperous, and Doña Nega with even greater autonomy. The present would be richer for us all. And, as part of this exercise, think of the present and the future without this transformation we seek, without the fruits of our struggle. Think of us, rural women, think of yourself. At your table, in your food, in what nourishes you, in what nourishes us. It’s not an easy scenario, is it? I know.
I don’t know whether you sensed it from my voice or my way of writing …. I am a poor, black woman. Very often I receive negative comments, I face prejudice daily and I have to overcome adversity. I’m the youngest daughter of Doña Perpetua and Mr. Teixeira, farmers who are now 78 years old. At the beginning of this letter, I mentioned that we live from planting and harvesting (fruits, knowledge, know-how, experiences, etc.). I began early in life, helping my parents and then the women of northeast Pará filled me with energy, especially Doña Francisca, or simply Francia, my beloved teacher and lifelong friend.
Farming always demands many hours of daily work, and it was no different in my family. I remember very clearly when we planted cassava to make flour, as well as watermelons, guavas and pepper. Work began at seven in the morning and ended at around five in the afternoon, with a maximum of two hours of rest. My brothers and I always helped my parents, hauling the produce all the way to a vehicle which, due to lack of access and good roads, could not reach our home. I also did various other jobs in the fields.
From very early on I understood the wealth and hardships of the countryside. I realized that our power, our value was not recognized, that rural women were strong, but were not seen. I’m a rural woman and, if I appear in the mirrors mentioned here, if I appear in the mirror of my house, if I reflect my companions and they are reflected in me, that proves that I’m not invisible. For example, you can see me. You are seeing me through this text, through my words. You can see me and all rural women. You can hear us, you are hearing us.
I don’t know whether you sensed it from my voice or my way of writing …. I am a poor, black woman.
Thank you for listening to me. And I wait for an answer. I want – we want, we need to talk. But please, not over the Internet, because access to communications is very lacking around here, as is access to water, land and to women’s rights …
I invite you then to join in that transformation. My call is for an ideal world, my struggle, our struggle, is also for that goal. A world with food free from agro-toxins, inequalities, violence, injustice. This has to do with me, a woman born and raised in the countryside for the countryside, with them, my colleagues and with you. With everyone. It may seem far off. But it’s not. Believe! We believe.
Thank you very much.