Real Leaders

Empowerment Through Change and Perseverance

Step into the shoes of an Ecuadorian women living in a small community in the Andes Mountains. It’s a Wednesday and wake up call is at 4:00 am. The sun is still a bit drowsy; the Earth and the people slowly arise for the day’s activities. With a family of growling stomachs your responsibility as a mother requires you to prepare breakfast. You’ll have to make whatever is in the house…whatever you could afford with your limited five dollars at the market yesterday. Perhaps there is some rice (1 pound is 0.50 cents), pastries (1 dollar buys you 10) or mangoes (1 dollar buys you 25) left over.

The clock is ticking; only 30 minutes left before you must go out to attend to your duties. With no time to spare, you head out into the field to tend the farm. Today’s job includes washing your donkey, feeding the sheep and collecting food for the guinea pig and rabbits. Yesterday you were watering crops, digging the buried potatoes and cutting weeds. You must allocate proper time for both the animals and agriculture. Poor time management equates to an empty pantry, no school uniforms (meaning no education), and no extra money for repairs around the house, for example.

Your back is in pain due to constant hovering and lifting in the field. Complaining might help the emotional side, but it won’t alter the physical. In fact, it won’t change the fact that tomorrow you will need to suffer the same physical challenges in order to bring health, education, clothes and shelter to your family. You’re willing to do anything for your loved ones. You grew up knowing that life can be hard; your ancestors told you that those who work the hardest are the ones that live the longest.

The sky has gotten dark and the evening chill is flowing. Dinner sounds nice, if money allows. Water would be great too, if one of your children went on a 5-8 hour walk to fetch it. A shower? Forget about that because you’ve had your shower for the week on Monday. It’s nine in the evening. You look at your successes and after a full day, the monetary gain is maybe 0.50 cents. Less than one dollar. It’s clear now that in your “free time,” before heading to bed, you need to knit a scarf for the women’s group. Someone needs t0 bring in the alternative income.

Not a second in the day goes by that your hands aren’t busy. Money means hard work and hard work means food. Your bed calls, ready for tomorrow starting at 4 am. Sleep, work, work, work, and repeat. During one of my Giveable Giggles trips to Ecuador in 2013 I met numerous women who live the daily experience described above. This, however, is the modern experience. Not too long along the communities and women, in general, lived in circumstances of extreme inequalities, violence or discrimination. One person in particular, Maria Angela Pacheco explained to us that she refused to go on living in these circumstances. She is living proof of how one’s goals combined with determination, passion, mobilization and action can make a difference.

As a young girl she grew up combatting the consequences of poverty, racism and sexism. She was raised in an environment in which women were treated and viewed as inferior and unequal. In comparison to the men of the community, there was a complete lack of opportunities for women. Perhaps it is because the culture called for the females to concentrate on domestic work, which inevitably created a barrier to the outside world. The household became a place for male domination despite it being a “women’s territory.” The men – husbands, politicians, brothers — made all of the decisions about how the women in the village lived their life.

Concerns relating to marriage, occupation and education were among some of the matters that were stripped from a women’s authority. Unsurprisingly, when a woman began to take control of her life, marriage or occupation, violence was expected. Avoiding the horrors of abuse the ladies, consequently, were silenced by the men. Once I understood this context, it began to make sense why the females I met were overwhelmingly shy. Who would want to speak out when their voice was cue for psychological or physical aggression? The women were shut out of opportunities to express their voice and opinions.

Maria Angela did not accept this reality. When she finished high school, she was disgusted with the overwhelming inequality. She took the initiative to listen to her fellow community members. Lost voices were suddenly heard. She essentially broke down the household barrier and welcomed females to speak out for what they believe in. As Maria Angela powerfully stood up for what she believed in, equality was given and respect earned. When she was 18 years old she became the first female president of her community. Following her leadership role and changing times, the community and surrounding areas have dramatically evolved. A woman’s space is no longer limited to the domestic realm. Their voices are no longer locked up in their own minds. Being a female no longer means extreme inequality or opportunities.

Through Maria Angela’s leadership and encouragement, she has introduced a number of microenterprises, for instance. She focuses on knitting projects with younger girls because it provides greater opportunities for their future and the development of the community as a whole. A young generation of educated, confident and powerful women is better equipped to succeed and start a chain reaction in modeling equality. Now even if the ladies had a tough day in the field, they have a safe place and group of like-minded women to interact with. Perhaps the past few day’s earnings were below the necessity; the profit from their group will serve as an alternative to maintain stable families. Maria Angelo has completely transformed the social structure, organization, politics, economy and institutions in these Ecuadorian communities.

When I went to visit Maria Angela, I realized that it has taken a long time for these communities to get to where they are today. Maria Angela did not wake up one day and find a suitable village in which to eradicate inequality overnight. I look towards her clarity, dedication and leadership to explain this transformation. In fact I found out that she ran leadership, ‘rights’ and self-esteem workshops to raise awareness within these communities.

In other words, she made a conscious effort to change a deeply embedded social norm of inequality to encourage positive progress. Maria Angela taught day after day, in place after place until she was able to recognize change. I would venture to believe that many of us resonate with Maria Angela. Perhaps in terms of the struggles we face as people (e.g., due to gender, religion, race or nationality) or as leaders (e.g. time, financial obstacles or space).

Often times I must remind myself that change is an ongoing process and that it may take time to reach our goals. Perseverance was key for Maria Angela. It is her dedication to seeing a change that generated a high impact. It is absolutely incredible that with the willingness to do what it takes to accomplish a goal many lives can be impacted for the better.

Maria Angelo can now measure her success based on the new laws passed, the many successful microenterprise women groups and an environment of equality. She proves that one person can make a difference.

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