Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Developing cohesion in APU...

I was immediately pleased to have been placed with the Urban Agriculture team, as the project strikes a good balance between hands-on practical work with families in El Alto, as well as having a more office-based side which focuses on commercialisation and nutrition. Our partner organisation, Focapaci, helps women in El Alto to find ways in which they can grow vegetables at home and potentially sell them at fair prices. This provides both a source of income and a source of nutrition for the women and their families. In order to achieve this, we work with an organisation called APU, which is made up of three separate groups – Aprodamh, Buena Amistad and Apaua.

It soon became clear that there was a real lack of cohesion between the different individuals and different groups within APU. When working in El Alto, it sometimes felt like we were just working with individual families, in total isolation from one another. When interviewing the women, it was often the case that they were uncertain about specificities of the project and very rarely met with other members of APU. Indeed, working in isolation is the total opposite of our project partner’s aims, who have more sustainable ideals. For this project to be sustainable it needs women who are already producers to be able to encourage other members of their community to also use their land at home for growing vegetables – but at the moment it feels like this is not happening.

Some Representatives of the APU Group.

There was thus a real need to reignite cohesion and strengthen the concept of this being a community project. We evidently needed to find ways of bringing people together. Ultimately, we thought that we could achieve this through the use of workshops.

The first factor which influenced this process was a meeting with Marina, a women’s rights activist who runs many community groups in El Alto. She spoke passionately about the low self-esteem of women here and the need for female empowerment in Bolivia.  This led us to think that workshops on women’s rights could be a good way of getting women working together cooperatively, whilst also challenging gender stereotypes.

The second factor which pushed us further towards the idea of workshops was a meeting on commercialisation with the leaders from Aprodamh, Apaua and Buena Amistad. This was the first time that we had representatives from each group together in one place – and it left us thinking that we needed to create more opportunities for everyone to come together and discuss ideas. All members at the meeting seemed very excited by the idea of workshops, specifically on women’s rights, and said that many of the producers would be likely to join.

Once we had decided that we wanted to plan these workshops, and Focapaci permitted the space for them, everything else happened quickly. Over the next week we received multiple phone-calls from different groups expressing an interest and setting dates for a series of workshops. We came very prepared with a set of basic activities for our first workshop with Aprodamh, as we were unsure about the levels of awareness and literacy. Just before leaving the office, Edel, the Assistant Director of the ICS programme here, explained that we must firstly perform a “diagnostic”, to establish what the women knew at the outset. This was so that we had a baseline to compare with at a later date. When we arrived at our first workshop, there were 12 women and 1 man. We started with our icebreaker activity. This entailed each person introducing themselves and stating their reasons for being in the organisation. The person speaking holds the ball of wool and then throws it onto the next person, whilst remaining hold of their end. The aim is for the ball of wool to represent a network by the end of the activity.

The 'Icebreaker' in our workshop, encouraging the producers to feel more connected.

We followed on from this with our diagnostic, asking two questions: What are human rights? And, what is gender equality? Although the conversation was dominated by one man and a couple of women, the group seemed to know more than we had initially expected. The ones who spoke had quite a good awareness of gender roles and equality. This made some of our later activities redundant – as we were very wary of patronising them. Essentially, this demonstrated to us the significance of always conducting a diagnostic before beginning a new task.

We repeated this Aprodamh workshop with Buena Amistad the following week, modifying a few of activities based on our experiences. For instance, after the diagnostic and discussion, we decided to give clear definitions of gender and human rights. This session was rather different, as they were a group of friends and so more readily shared their experiences of discrimination. We ended the workshop with an activity to address the self-esteem of women, where we read out short story. Each person then lit a match and had to say something that they liked about themselves before it burnt out. The activity was very revealing about women’s self-confidence, as many found it rather difficult to think of characteristics that they liked about their personalities.

Doña Nora, during the exercise involving matches.

It emerged from these two diagnostic workshops that it would be better to separate different topics, for example, planning one workshop on gender, one on human rights, one on nutrition and one on commercialisation. We went on to complete a gender workshop where women’s concerns of unpaid work surfaced. Women were troubled by the fact that whilst men’s work was almost always paid, women’s domestic work was often unpaid and they usually farmed for subsistence, rather than an income. This has interesting ties with our partner project Focapaci as a whole, who assist women in growing produce for both subsistence and income.

Overall, although this is just the beginning, the workshops have been very successful so far and I have found them to be the most exciting part of the project. Instead of working with families in isolation, I hope that these workshops can contribute to longer-term sustainable development. Many women wanted more specific advice, such as where they can access health and legal advice, for example. Whilst we realise that we may not be in the best position to answer these more specific questions, we are able to do some research ahead of each session – and above all, we hope we can provide a community space for APU to meet for discussions and help to answer one another’s problems.

Written by Nandini Archer

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