The United Nations Meet Las Defensoras Populares

As a new face here at Raxa Collective, I thought I’d take a minute to introduce you to all to the organisation I’m volunteering for here in Costa Rica. It’s called MUSADE, which stands for Mujeres Unidas en Salud y Desarrollo, and its function is to provide support for women who have suffered intra-familiar violence. MUSADE has a lot of great programs going on, but today I’d like to talk to you about some exciting news for our Defensoras Populares.

This banner was made to commemorate MUSADE's 25th anniversary this coming Tuesday.

A few weeks ago, some men came to MUSADE with video cameras and those big fluffy grey microphones like the ones they use on movie sets. They interviewed my boss and took some candid footage of a few of us in the office, discussing our own individual projects (I had been completely oblivious to the fact that we were expecting them, so my decision to style my hair and apply proper make-up that morning will have to be chalked up to women’s intuition). Anyway, someone eventually explained to me what was going on, and it turns out they were from the United Nations’ UNETE campaign and our Defensoras Populares were being given an award and cash prize for their work to combat gender-related violence in Costa Rica.

The certificate is now proudly on display in MUSADE's waiting room.

Let’s take a second to talk about that. I’m always hearing the expression ‘patriarchal society’ when any discussion opens up about the difficulties facing Costa Rican women in their fight for equality. Which, considering the nature of MUSADE, is very often indeed. But what exactly does this mean?

The words themselves mean that men have the power. Dig a little deeper and it has many more implications than that.

'I am not your domestic servant; I am not merchandise for your consumption; Enough! We're fed up!'

It means that, particularly in rural areas like San Ramon, women aren’t respected like men are. Especially in less privileged families, it’s not common for women to go to university, and many don’t even complete high school. Families tend to be big here – Costa Rica is quite prominently Catholic – and there often simply isn’t enough money to send everyone to school. So the boys go and learn to make money, and the girls stay at home and learn to look after a husband so he can support her.

The problem, if I need to say it, is that both parties end up with this view that the wife depends on her husband. This is the mentality that gives rise to domestic violence; and to women not reporting it because they feel it’s normal and fear losing their only source of income.

Women are tired of playing the roles set out for them and nothing more.

The Defensoras Populares exist to combat this attitude towards women. Every defensora in the group was once a member of one of MUSADE’s support groups for survivors of domestic violence, and every one of them felt so moved by the help they received that they wanted to get involved and assist others in the same way. The project began with the women helping newcomers to the support groups, by going with them to hospital appointments, asking the right questions, and using their own experience to benefit others going through what they’d suffered. When the University of Costa Rica agreed to lend a hand, the project was named Defensoras Populares (Popular Defenders) and an official Women’s-Rights training scheme and qualification was set up.

Nowadays the Defensoras Populares have bloomed from victims into leaders, giving talks to schoolkids, organising awareness-raising events and guiding their own courses on human rights, thus empowering other ex-victims of violence through an understanding of the global standpoint on violence against women.

Remupre (Network of Puntarenese Women in Resistance) is one of the groups set up independently of MUSADE.

For example, many people weren’t even aware that there was international pressure on governments to put an end to the cycle of violence against women in Latin America. That this patriarchal society they’d grown up in was seen elsewhere as archaic and unjust was news to a lot of women who had come to accept it as reality. And this is precisely why this award from the United Nations is so vital to the program. Not only will the funding help my inspirational boss and founder of MUSADE, Enid Cruz Ramirez, to expand the project and bring the gift of understanding to more women than ever before; it also sends a message to other victims that there is a huge, powerful, global force working alongside them, fighting for them, and proving that it really shouldn’t be like this. That it really can’t go on like this. That the world won’t give up until these women’s rights are recognised.

Thank you, UNETE, for acknowledging the 25 years of tireless work that have gone into this project. Thank you for showing these vulnerable women that they are not alone.

'If you assault one of us, you assault all of us'

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