How does empowerment help change the lives of women working at a maquila?

Ángeles had always lived at her parents’ home in Allende, a town near Piedras Negras, Coahuila, in the north of Mexico. For several years, it has been one of the most important industrial centers in the country.  Ángeles dreamed for many years of having her own home, where she could cook for her two daughters, and watch them grow and develop under her own rules. She overcame many barriers to achieve that.  Saving enough for the mortage seemed impossible with her paltry income. But the biggest barrier was right under her nose. Ángeles needed to become self-confident, find her voice and raise it to make her dreams come true. She didn’t know it, but she was a leader in her group of colleagues.

In late 2016, Ángeles visited the offices of the Border Committee of Workers (CFO), a social organization in her community. There she found that they offered GEMA, a gender-oriented empowerment workshop. She decided to sign up. Little by little, she learned from CFO coordinator Julia Quiñonez and her colleagues that people have great potential for leadership, that they can change their environment and inspire others to work as a team to improve their situations, regardless of their gender, job or social and cultural background. She also learned to recognize occupational health and safety risks, her rights as a worker, and how to negotiate with supervisors to ensure that the occupational well-being was priorities of herself and her colleagues.

Sometimes her two daughters went to class with her, so they also learned more about their own ability to achieve their goals. “For example, they taught us that, whether we are men or women, we deserve to be treated with respect and have the same opportunities, because we both have the same value,” recalls Ángeles as she looks through the folder with all the lessons from the workshop.

Without giving it much thought, Ángeles applied for a mortgage through INFOVANIT (the Mexican home loan system), which, to her surprise, she was granted. Her unexpected success led her to believe that she could also achieve the dream of her daughters celebrating a Quinceañera party. With the help of her family, friends, neighbors and colleagues from the maquila, she managed to have celebrations for both of them, and these memories are preserved today in photographs, shown to us by her younger daughter with great enthusiasm.

Her self-confidence was reinforced, and it soon came time to try to change some things on the job. With the support of her colleagues, Ángeles successfully negotiated with the coordinators to have the transportation that took them to and from the maquila go into the communities near the homes of the workers. “Before, we had to go to downtown Allende to catch the trucks that took us to the maquila. For many of us that meant walking over 20 blocks, and when we worked night shifts, sometimes we had to go home in the dark at 1 in the morning or even later. With the issue of security in Allende, we were afraid to go home every day,” she said. With everything she learned in the two-year workshop, Ángeles was able to establish a respectful and open dialogue with her bosses, helping her colleagues achieve much safer working conditions.

Ángeles was always a leader in her working group, respected by her colleagues and by her bosses. All she needed was to get her voice back to prove to herself that she was able to make changes in her environment. "She is loved very much because she is concerned about others. Her colleagues have cooperated when she needed it, they admire her strength and intelligence very much, and they always listen to her because she has something good to say,” explains Julia Quiñonez, coordinator of the Border Committee of Workers (CFO), who has known Ángeles for many years now.

“There were 25 people who signed up for our workshop; Ángeles and 11 others finished it. The first thing we teach everyone is the concept of gender roles; that is, the qualities that tend to be used to identify a man and a woman. Gradually, we help them understand that many of these qualities are not gender exclusive, which, among many other reasons, is why they are neither better nor worse than anyone else, and they deserve to be treated equally both on and off the job,” concludes Julia.

The GEMA workshop is one of the initiatives implemented by CFO in the towns near Piedras Negras. Thanks to the support of the C&A Foundation, through Fondo Semillas, more people like Ángeles are discovering that they have the power to change their realities and those of their colleagues. “One of the things this workshop taught me is to have confidence in myself and to be more independent,” said Ángeles.

Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico