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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 6, April 2006

CoDev is 20!

by Fiona Sheehan

To celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2005, CoDevelopment Canada held a two-day conference, Making Poverty History, to explore strategies and visions for policy change. CoDev will be following up on the concrete strategy and policy recommendations coming out of the conference. The BCTF has been a supporter of CoDev over the years through its commitment to international solidarity, and several members serve on the board of directors. BCTF members were instrumental in founding CoDev.

It began 20 years ago with a stirring photo on the pages of a daily Peruvian newspaper—a crowd of women raising their arms in protest against a bank of riot police. Julia Goulden, a special education teacher in Burnaby at the time, decided she wanted to do something. The women in the photo were teachers too.

"It was such a powerful photograph and I thought ‘I’m going to go there and help those women.’ They were really up against it."

With that idea, CoDevelopment Canada’s first project was born. Two teachers from the Lower Mainland set off, with Mario Lee as translator, to meet their counterparts in Peru where the union had been decertified and its offices demolished by the government. The crime? Peruvian teachers were accused of promoting the rights of union members.

The BCTF had just decided to fund international solidarity, particularly with a view to women’s rights, and needed a separate agency to carry out that work. CoDevelopment Canada was founded in 1985 to take up the task and has continued ever since, now administering a variety of projects in Latin America, from working to maintain publicly funded education to promoting human and labour rights for factory workers.

That first trip opened everyone’s eyes. Goulden found that although the Peruvian teachers at the front lines of protests were women, the union leadership representing them was entirely male.

"Eighty per cent of the teachers were women, but the union leaders were all men... The women were always put at the front of the protests because the thinking was that the police would be less likely to beat them up."

"They [the union leadership] had never considered that there might be union issues with women."

After much discussion, the national teachers’ union of Peru—known by its Spanish acronym of SUTEP—brought forward women to meet the tiny CoDev delegation. Women activists were often given the worst teaching assignments in dangerous neighbourhoods of the capital city of Lima, left to work at night while their families were at home.

CoDev helped SUTEP set up a program of empowerment for women that continues today. A central teacher co-ordinator ran conferences in which sex discrimination in education was discussed.

CoDev’s program director for education, Steve Stewart, recently travelled to Peru’s Amazon basin region for a similar meeting of about 50 women teachers. "Some women travelled for three days on the river to attend the seminar because they said there’s nothing else for them."

Non-sexist, inclusive teaching is perceived as radical in highly traditional Latin American societies. This allows CoDev to be part of work that challenges all sorts of discrimination and inequality in society.

Non-sexist pedagogy messages are being spread to other parts of Latin America via Central America and Ecuador and even though the number of women on the national executive of the teachers’ union is still low—3 out of 19 positions—participation at the local level has increased more significantly, said Stewart.

"And even the men who at first questioned why women needed a voice in the union have now come around," said Goulden. "They came to see that having women strong was important."

Fiona Sheehan is a CoDev volunteer.

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