At an auto parts factory in Piedras Negras, Mexico, women getting off work after midnight board private buses the company pays for to transport them home. But until recently, the bus drivers refused to take the women all the way to their houses, instead letting them off far from their residences and forcing them to walk alone in one of Mexico’s most unsafe areas, especially for women. (El articulo en español aquÍ.)
All that changed after the women joined together and circulated a petition asking their employer to require the bus drivers to take them to their houses, which they now do.
“To me this was important not only because now we can say to our kids that we’ll be back from work safe at night, but also because more women in our neighborhoods will consider working at the factories,” says one worker, Tonantzin Nava. “As women, we must raise our voices and keep pushing for better opportunities for all of us, and to ensure that our jobs provide for our safety.”
The women workers recognized they have the power to stand up for their safety after participating in the Gender and Women’s Empowerment for Action (GEMA) training, a program sponsored by the Solidarity Center and the Border Committee of Women Workers (Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s, CFO).
Launched in 2013, GEMA (“gemstone” in Spanish), is unique because women workers are at its center. It was designed by and for women workers in the maquilas of Mexico’s northern border, and the workers guide the program facilitators in the types of training, analysis and planning most appropriate and useful for them. GEMA participants tell facilitators they want formal-sector jobs, but with decent working conditions. If maquila jobs—where women predominate—are not decent jobs, they perpetuate gender-based discrimination and violence and do not help families and their communities.
Economic hardship contributes to the daily potential for physical danger, and accentuates the risks that women in particular face. The GEMA program helps women analyze these issues and develop plans of action to address them.
In border areas like Piedras Negras, women make around $1 per hour in the maquiladoras, and most face unsafe and unhealthy conditions in an environment where labor laws are typically not enforced. Chronic injuries such as carpel tunnel and circulation problems from long hours of backbreaking and repetitive work are the norm, yet access to health care and workers’ compensation is sporadic.
Piedras Negras, in Coahuila state, across from Eagle Pass, Texas, is in the heart of northeastern Mexico, where the number of women murdered jumped more than 500 percent between 2001 and 2010. While the cause of these deaths varies, the deterioration of the social fabric, which has enabled such violence to surge unimpeded, stems in large part from the economic marginalization of women and their families.
Across Mexico, some 4,000 women disappeared in 2011–2012, part of a pandemic of violence against women at a time when 10 million workers were unable to provide the basic needs of their families, and when the number of women entering precarious jobs grew faster than the rate at which they were entering well-paid formal sector jobs.
To reach and empower as many women as possible, GEMA participants go on to share their insights and training with other women, meeting with them in their homes, where these “safe” environments provide them the social space to get to know one another and develop bonds of solidarity, figure out their most pressing problems and devise courses of action to address them. The women say GEMA gives them the tools to rebuild the social fabric of their communities.
“In GEMA, we have developed our self-confidence as well as skills and talents that we didn´t even know we had,” says Yohanna Esparza. “I am now facilitating discussion groups with other women and we are starting to walk steadfastly together, with our heads held high, on the path toward our dreams of a better future.”
Other women who have taken part in GEMA have gone on to participate in weekly roundtable meetings with management at an auto parts factory, to channel concerns and develop solutions.
GEMA is now expanding its reach. In 2014, the CFO and Solidarity Center began jointly facilitating a women’s empowerment and leadership program for women mineworkers with the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Similar Workers of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMSSRM) and United Steelworkers. The union leadership is unanimous in declaring that when women are strong, and make their voices heard, unions are strong and everyone benefits from improved living and working conditions—workers, employers and society.