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Giving Voice to the Majority: an Interview with Quiche Maya Legislator Manuela Alvarado
Cerigua Weekly Briefs, No.11, 11 March 1997
Guatemala City, March 12. Legislators like Manuela Alvarado Lopez are rare. She is one of just 11 women and six Mayas who sit in Guatemala's 80 seat Congress. Her party, the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG), is also a minority in the House occupying only six seats.
But Alvarado speaks for Guatemala's majority -- women and Mayas. And as the new head of the Congressional Committee on Women, the Family and Minors, she is forging ahead on a career that began more than twenty years ago as a nurse and school teacher in Cantel, Quetzaltenango province and reflects an unwavering commitment to the struggles of women to control their own destinies.
"We're not going to wait for men to come along and save us," she told Cerigua in an interview today. "Women, in accordance with their experience and their aims, will present more concrete and realistic alternatives to resolve [the problems they face]."
"It's the same with the Mayan people. You'll find some people who say that in Guatemala everyone is equal. But ladinos [mestizos] are the ones saying that, because they've had very little experience with exclusion, discrimination and racism. The Mayan people who've lived all these things don't buy that everyone is equal because for them it's obvious that that's not the way it is."
Alvarado took over the presidency of the Women's Committee in January from fellow FDNG legislator Nineth Montenegro. She says she is eager to guarantee continuity in the committee's work and put into practice her long experience in women's issues. She also stresses the importance of seeking input from women's groups on the bills that arrive at her office. "We have meetings every two months where we present the women with the drafts that we have received so they can give their opinions," she said.
But as minorities in Congress both women and the FDNG have a hard time getting support for their initiatives.
A bill to criminalize sexual harassment -- the first the committee received since the new Congress took power in January 1995 -- is a case in point. "The serious impact that [sexual harassment] has on the persona of women is not understood. It's as if [the men in Congress] don't want to admit it exists... And since those who most commit sexual harassment are men, they feel affronted. I imagine they feel singled out. But that's why it's important that men understand that in fact this law is to help us eradicate a serious problem in our society."
The absence of a clear commitment to women's demands on the part of the ruling National Advancement Party (PAN) doesn't help. "There's a separation between the government's proposals in their work with women and the proposals of women's organizations and women at the grassroots," she says.
"A lot of laws get passed by Congress...but not one has been passed to benefit women. And who's behind the laws that are being made? The government."
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