Despite their 20 percent share of the population, Mayan women in Guatemala have limited political and economic power. They have the country’s highest rates of poverty and illiteracy, and, according to an NDI-supported study, are far less likely to vote than any other sector of the population. Only four of 158 deputies in Congress are Mayan women and only one of 333 mayors. Efforts to change that status are hampered by most of the women’s lack of campaign and other political skills since few were included on candidate lists for the last election in 2007.
Still, indigenous women in Guatemala are working to become more active in political life. To help them, NDI designed and carried out a six month leadership academy in 2009 and a three-course training program for potential candidates last year. These are among programs the Institute carries out in many countries to encourage better representation of excluded populations. One of the participants in the candidate training program, Izabel Francisco, sat down for an interview to discuss her experiences as an indigenous woman preparing to run for mayor in the upcoming September 2011 general elections.
Why do you want to run for office? Was there one moment you made the decision?
First, because it’s my right to participate and these rights are guaranteed in the laws of my country. Second, because as a woman I believe that I can support other women, not only by including them in the political process, but also by creating programs that would specifically support them. At the moment I made the decision to run, I did it without hesitation.
It is my desire to collaborate with, contribute to and support my community. Throughout my life, I have worked as a volunteer in my community and with a women’s association that I helped form. This experience allows me to understand the reality that the people and women of my community are living.
There is disappointment and a lack of trust in politics, so part of my decision to run was to show that there is no need to be afraid of politics. Politics is good, but sometimes the people that engage in politics do not do a good job. So if I can contribute to improving trust and convincing people that politics can be good and that people can make good decisions, then this is what I want to do with all my heart.
Why did you decide to run for mayor in your municipality in Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, as opposed to being a candidate for the Guatemalan National Congress?
Many people told me that I should run for congress, but I realized that if I wanted to do something for my community it would be better to run for mayor. I will use this as a learning experience. The mayor is an executive position and I would rather be in that position than be a legislator. I can better advocate for change as a mayor.
Do you have previous experience within political parties or movements? If so, what has your experience been?
I am part of the political movement Jolom Konob. It means leader of the people (Cabeza del Pueblo) in the indigenous language of Q'anjob'al. This is my third time as a candidate for mayor. The first time I finished in fifth place. The second time I finished in third place. This time I’m hopeful I’ll win!
Why did you decide to participate in the NDI training programs? What skills did you gain and how will they help you to be a more successful candidate?
It seemed to be a great opportunity to strengthen my skills and to gain the tools that would allow me to share my knowledge with my colleagues in my civic group. The most important tools I gained were how to design a campaign strategy, identify the key people and organizations that can influence an election and communicate a clear strategy. I believe that these tools will allow me to be a more successful candidate.
What will your policy priorities be as a candidate for public office?
Our key policy priorities will be divided into five areas: social, economic, environmental, cultural and political. Social policy includes education, health, housing and infrastructure needs of the municipality. We will focus on coordination and communication with the municipal institutions that are responsible for these areas. We must also focus on economic development within the municipality, for example creating opportunities for immigrants to invest their remittances in municipal projects. Our environmental policy priority will be trash management and conservation of rivers. Cultural policy will not only include indigenous identity and spirituality, but also values that are important to the entire community. The final priority will be a political policy that does not just focus on electoral politics but encourages people to participate and advocate for the needs of their community. We want people to learn to be involved in politics, represent their communities and participate in decision-making.
How important is it that women are elected to public office in Guatemala? What about indigenous women?
According to the statistics, 54 percent of the Guatemalan population is female. More than half are indigenous women. Indigenous women have been the most excluded, marginalized and discriminated sector of the population. I see my role as bridging and closing this gap.
I want to lead by example and demonstrate that indigenous women can lead and can participate. This reality needs to be changed and if we don’t act, we can’t change it. We can’t wait for change; we need to start the change. If we don’t participate and we don’t demand to be included and we don’t make our voices heard, then we will never be taken into consideration.
What do you think is the best way to get more women and indigenous people involved in political life in Guatemala?
Women need to unite and have a unified message. While this can be difficult, it is important, because if we don’t support each other nothing will change.
How do you feel about proposed reforms to Article 212 of the Law on Elections and Political Parties that would require parties to include women on party lists?
Support this reform. It is necessary that political parties be required to take women into consideration. It would help us because we have realized that we can’t achieve change just by talking. It must actually be put into law. We need a greater balance between men and women. This balance should not only be in political parties and elected office, but also within public institutions and appointed positions.
How do you think your community views your interest in running for public office? What kind of inspiration do you think you provide for other indigenous women?
I think my community realizes that I can apply my experience in providing an education for my children and managing my household to running a city hall. As women, we are responsible for administering our resources and taking care of families so people see that I would be able to do a good job in doing the same for the entire community as mayor. I believe that as a candidate I do show women that it is possible to run for office. In fact, there is another woman in my city on my party list that will be a candidate for city council.
I’ve realized that my campaign gives a message of hope and opportunity to other women. Education is fundamental. I want to show that we need to continue with our education and training so that we can become more active in our communities. Anything is possible when we are passionate about what we do.
Pictured above: Izabel Francisco, mayoral candidate in Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango.
Published February 4, 2011