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Khadse and Jurikova '08 - Senior Project
As politically engaged, probing women, Katarina Jurikova and Ashlesha Khadse were inspired by the struggles of the indigenous women of Chiapas, Mexico against the changes wrought by NAFTA. Katarina, who is from Slovakia, and Ashlesha, from India, had no interest in just reading what others had to say about these women, they wanted to experience the routines of their lives first-hand: to rise at 4 a.m. with the women, learn to fashion tortillas from grainy masa harina, breathe in the wood smoke, touch the thick, beautiful embroideries of their traditional clothes, and help with tasks from fetching water to harvesting - all the while listening to the women's stories.
Though Katarina and Ashlesha purposefully went to Chiapas without a firm plan, they found ways to get involved. "We joined the women's movements and helped organize a march against NAFTA, volunteered for farming cooperatives, conducted human rights observations in several autonomous Zapatista communities through the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE), attended weekly meetings of an indigenous women's coffee cooperative, ... attended weekly seminars of La Otra Campana and traveled to some of the most isolated communities in the Lacandon forest." Eventually, they focused on the stories of seven women, spending much of their four months in Chiapas listening.
"Most women tended to talk about maize, the milpa, food, difficulties in making ends meet, the burden of extra work, and health, and so over the course of time, the women led us into their own analysis," they wrote. They heard about how the Mexican government withdrew funding for education and health care, that flour that is not as satisfying to traditional tastes - nor as nutritionally viable - flooded the regional markets. Because people found themselves in need of money to pay for education, health care, they might sell their land in hopes of wage jobs on coffee plantations. When those funds didn't suffice, the men frequently left for the United States.
"Far from helping [the women of Chiapas] achieve the promised improved standard of living, the NAFTA functions because women are taking on the onus to do what the government used to do earlier - provide health, education and welfare."
In conclusion, write Ashlesha and Katarina,
The findings of this paper contradict the arguments supporting free trade and neoliberalism as a solution to reduced poverty and greater democracy. One of the basic requirements of free trade and the theory of comparative advantage has been moving to cash crops. A shift to cash crops does not simply amount to an increased cash income and consequently raised the standard of living. Women in a coffee cooperative showed us that a reallocation of time and resources from maize to coffee has increased their existential insecurity. It has exposed them to the price volatility of international markets and put them at the mercy of consumer choices in the north and has brought only a meager rise in income.
This shift to cash crops has also increased women's work burdens, reduced the time they can dedicate to their children and food preparation. It has increased their dependency on outside food sources like Maseca maize flour which does not "fill them up."
Far from being victims, these women are actively resisting the threats to a self-determined way of life and to their very survival itself. The focus on the state, media and the public sphere has disregarded hidden spheres of households as places where counter-hegemonic social movements are cultivated. However, women's deep connections with the past and future generations and a threat to their survival have prompted them to become central agents in the resistance struggle that is springing up throughout Chiapas.