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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 15, Number 3, Jan./Feb. 2003

Sharing with teachers in the Americas

by Jinny Sims

Gaining a say in their unions is still very much a struggle for women in Latin America. That became very clear at a meeting of women in Panama to evaluate BCTF-sponsored women’s programs.

Women from unions in Central and South America told us that the programs to build their confidence and capacity are often resented by the men in their unions. While the overwhelming majority of teachers in those countries are women, they traditionally have had no role in the leadership of their unions.

The situation has changed somewhat as a result of the teacher union women’s programs that have been financially supported by the BCTF, with matching funds from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The programs are managed by CoDevelopment Canada. But there is still a long way to go, as the stories of the women in the programs made clear.

For a decade, the BCTF and CoDevelopment Canada have been supporting workshops for women, organized by women in their unions. The BCTF’s Status of Women Program helped women teachers in B.C. take a prominent role in the leadership of the Federation, and that is the aim of the women’s committees in the Latin American unions.

It has not been an easy task. In one of the unions, the SEC in Costa Rica, women now make up a majority of the members of the executive and hold the two top offices.

That is an exception. While a few women have been elected to the executive in other countries, they still feel marginalized in their union and do not get information until after their male colleagues.

The challenges are not only within the union. Many husbands oppose their spouses’ taking part in the union leadership—sometimes responding with violence. Even other women teachers sometimes see them as "crazy" because they challenge the traditional role of women in their society.

Representatives from all the BCTF-sponsored projects emphasized the importance of the grants to carry out workshops and training. The training was invaluable, they said, in developing the skills and confidence to effect change. In addition, because the funding is provided from an international source and must be spent for women’s programs, it creates a space for them in the union. However, the funding also is sometimes a source of resentment by the men on executives because they would prefer to spend the money on projects other than the development of women’s participation in the union.

A related CoDevelopment Canada project has a focus on non-sexist pedagogy. Several of the unions have carried out activities to identify sexist practices in textbooks and teaching approaches. A major portion of the funding for them has come from the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

The program evaluation meeting in Panama was linked to a regional training conference on non-sexist pedagogy. It provided an opportunity for the project developers to share their information and approaches with representatives from throughout Central America and the Andean region.

In this and other international project meetings I have attended, several things come over very clearly. The small amounts of funding provided by the BCTF International Solidarity Program are used very effectively to carry out work that otherwise could not be done. For example, when 30 people take part in a training session for women teachers, they all go back to their communities and offer the workshop there.

Further, the BCTF is held in very high esteem internationally. The participants in the meetings made it clear that they want us to work directly with them, not just send funding for projects. They are interested in our struggles, even though their own struggles are carried out with very few resources, in either the union or their schools and communities. And they want to talk about strategies for supporting public education—the struggle that we share. This commonality came through strongly as teachers talked about the situations in their countries.

Do these sound familiar?: fiscal deficits used to justify cutbacks, government eliminating the social safety net, "flexibility" meaning cuts to services; privatization, corporate control of the media, media attacking teachers, government attacking unions, political parties have no credibility, people are in shock—busy at survival.

Every one of these issues was named as participants described what is happening to education in their countries. Clearly we share a lot of experiences with our colleagues in Latin America. In this age of globalization, we gain perspective and solidarity when we work together to figure out how best to support public education and meet the needs of students and of teachers.

Jinny Sims is the BCTF’s first vice-president.