Women’s WorldWide Web interviews Dr. Blanca Rico Galindo, former Executive Director of Mexican NGO and Women’s Fund, Semillas (Sociedad Mexicana Pro Derechos de la Mujer, A.C.)
Semillas—which is Mexico’s only women’s fund—is a non-profit organization that offers grants and guidance to women’s empowerment groups working to raise awareness and promote the protection of women’s rights throughout Mexico. Semillas acquires its funding from private donors as well as institutional and international donors, and awards grants primarily to women’s advocates working in the domains of human rights, labor rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and gender violence. Beyond financial assistance, Semillas also contributes institutional support to help groups to strengthen their leadership and organizational capacities, to reinforce their systems of monitoring and evaluation, and to ensure the sustainability of their projects through resource development.
Semillas (whose name means “seeds” in Spanish) recognizes that women are seeds for social change: as caregivers, laborers, and leaders, women are crucial to development efforts and the sparking of positive social change across Mexico. Recognizing the countless responsibilities that women hold within their families, local communities and greater Mexican society, Semillas’ operations are dedicated to changing the mindsets that hinder women’s empowerment, so that women can contribute to generating a culture in which succeeding generations can live in harmony and prosperity.
In an interview with Women’s WorldWide Web, Semillas’ former Executive Director Dr. Blanca Rico Galindo describes the organization’s unwavering courage and inspiring work to ensure the continuity of the vital efforts of Mexico’s women’s empowerment groups—in spite of the disturbing fact that, in certain regions of the country, many women’s rights advocates have themselves become the targets and victims of senseless and widespread violence.
1. Can you tell us how Semillas was started and what inspired you to become involved with the organization?
Well, Semillas was started in 1990 by four very well-known feminists in the country, one of whom is still sitting on the Board, Lucero González. Surprisingly, it’s still the only women’s fund in Mexico.
Over these 22 years, we have gone through many different changes and the organization has grown a lot. Semillas started as a very small organization with some funds from the Global Fund for Women, and now has a Board of ten very well-known feminists in Mexico.
Our mission, since the beginning, has been to strengthen small women’s groups and organizations that are active in the field of human rights and guided by feminist principles. We only fund very small women’s organizations that really want to work or are already working within these two key areas.
We are concerned with a very wide range of women’s rights, including economic rights and autonomy rights. We often work with artisan groups—many of which are indigenous women’s cooperatives—helping them to resolve organizational difficulties so that they can strengthen their own cooperative, and giving them advice regarding the design of the products they create and how they can better commercialize their products. In every case, no matter the specific human right the groups are working on, we always try to give women a comprehensive understanding of their rights. Often, our role is simply to make women aware that they have rights and that they are entitled to exercise these rights and to be empowered individuals.
As I was saying, we cover a wide range of rights, from these economic rights to sexual and reproductive rights and the right to be protected against violence—we work on a variety of different issues.
2. As Mexico’s only women’s fund, what are some of the challenges your organization has faced and is currently facing in accomplishing its mission? And why is it, do you think, that after 20 years Semillas remains the only women’s fund in Mexico?
Well, the challenges are rather numerous. We are a very big and diverse country and the situation of our women—on the cultural, economic or social dimension—is very bad. The need for women to get funding to do the work that they want to do in order to improve their communities, to improve the situation in which they are living, is huge.
As the only women’s fund, we always have this feeling that we aren’t doing enough—that we can’t embrace all the needs that exist. We are based in Mexico City, but we have projects throughout the entire country. For us, it has been very difficult to be able to visit all of the projects, but we’re trying to increasingly involve people that we can, in a way, hire to support our work in the other states —NGOs that are not women’s funds but professional organizations capable of offering advice and helping more locally. We would really need to have a huge staff to be working, on a daily basis, with our grantees.
That’s a very big challenge and, of course, fund-raising is another significant challenge. As a women’s fund, we need to raise money to give to our grantees, and Mexico is a country in which philanthropy is very scarce. We don’t have a culture of philanthropy, and the limited philanthropic resources that do exist in the country are used to respond to other problems related to natural disasters or disabled people, for example. It’s very difficult to convince Mexican foundations or Mexican people to support the kind of work we do, which consists of partnering with women’s organizations and accepting their proposals as they give them to us, because we know that they are the ones that really know their own needs. Acknowledging the local knowledge and wisdom of the people on the ground is essential, and we are not the ones to go there and tell them what to do. It is very difficult to convince people that this kind of work makes sense and should be supported, so that’s another immense challenge for us.
The second part of the question, on why we are the only women’s fund, has to do with the first part. It’s so difficult to raise money. Most of the women’s organizations in the country raise funds for themselves to do the work that they do, but it’s difficult to raise money to give it to other organizations. I guess that’s the main explanation; maybe there are other sides to it.
3. In terms of the issue of violence against women: if you survey the last 20 years, what would you say has been the development, the trend, or—as one would hope—progress?
This is really our nightmare. Violence against women is a problem we are constantly running up against and it has become one of our main concerns. Our training workshops and capacity-strengthening initiatives have always included the question of violence against women.
Things have really changed in terms of violence. Many of the women who are facing violence are human rights defenders. Before, most of the violence women were experiencing was either domestic violence or violence related to social issues within their communities—like machismo and discrimination in terms of access to income and resources—but now many of our participants are experiencing threats and some have even suffered violent attacks. Some of these victims are women working to fight femicide and to protect women’s rights.
For instance, in Ciudad Juarez, we have some grantees with whom we’ve been working for a long time and we have one grantee who is now benefiting from protective measures issued by the Inter-American court—the government has assigned two people, or bodyguards, to be with her at all times. They granted her this because her case first went through the Inter-American human rights system—first to the Inter-American Committee and then to the courts.
In 2011, the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders (based in Geneva at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights) visited Mexico. The principal women’s human rights defenders, the ones who are suffering the most, are the defenders who are working on labor rights. But we work for labor rights, we address the issue of femicide, we work for sexual and reproductive rights, etc., and all of the defenders of these rights are now going through a very hard time in terms of security. One of the things we do is to include, in all of our capacity-building programs, a section that deals with security and burn-out issues.
4. What kinds of projects is your organization working on or implementing to help address the impact of increased violence against women? Can you describe some of the smaller grassroots efforts that you are funding and what they are doing to help the women in the communities who are most affected by this violence?
In terms of the work we’re doing regarding violence against women, Semillas is very aware that every single organization with which we work faces the threat of violence and that this is a cross-cutting problem for all women—especially when they are fighting the issue of violence carried out against women themselves.
All of the work that is related to victims of violence is work that we don’t directly support. We don’t directly support this work because there are many other women’s organizations that are focusing on this specific problem. Instead, we try to address the structural problems that contribute to the violence. For example, we are supporting some groups that help in advocating with the legislative branch. These are sophisticated organizations with lawyers and experts that really help to bring about change, advocating in different states to change the law. We now have a national law to protect women from violence. This law exists at the federal level, but there needs to be a lot of work done at the local level, within the different states, to create local laws in line with the federal law. We have been supporting this kind of work.
Another issue that we address is to make women aware of their right to live a life without violence. We work with a lot of grassroots indigenous women’s organizations. These populations have their traditional, cultural systems of governance and these systems are sometimes even more conducive to violence against women than the broader values system. We have some indigenous communities in which young women are still sold within their communities or are forced to get married very young. We are supporting groups that bring women into decision-making processes within their communities in order to change these traditions. This is an example of an initiative related to a structural issue that we try to support rather than directly supporting female victims of violence.
5. What do you think the future holds for women in Mexico and what, in your opinion, inspires women in Mexico to remain hopeful and resilient in the face of the difficulties?
I don’t know if I have the answer to this. I would say there’s kind of a paradox—we, as women, complain a lot about men not getting involved enough in the responsibilities that we have to deal with and about how they are always trying to defend their privileged status (being able to go outside of the household and only bringing back the resources necessary to live, when, as women, we have a lot more responsibilities within the communities). In the cities— I speak in plural and include myself in this, because there’s an unbalanced situation in general for women compared to men, at all socioeconomic levels—women really have to deal with almost everything: the reproductive responsibilities, household work, and now, of course, women have to be economic providers. I think the issue of having such huge responsibilities is something we used to complain about, but, on the other hand, it’s one of the things that makes us stronger every day and helps us persevere.
I think our children’s future is another very important factor for women. When you talk to women and listen to their testimonies, their children are always such an important part of why they do what they do. They can’t imagine stopping the fight to provide their children with a brighter future. I would say, from my experience and from talking to so many women, that this is something that makes women resilient and hopeful—we will not just give up and say, “Well, our children will have a terrible, lousy future and we cannot do anything about it”.
6. What are some of your success stories, and is there one in particular that holds personal meaning for you?
I have to say, we have several success stories—but one is very meaningful for me. I used to work for the MacArthur Foundation here in Mexico, and this Foundation had a fund for individuals, offering grants to individuals who were doing successful or innovative work within their communities. This program was handed over to Semillas in 2001 (when I stopped working at the MacArthur Foundation), and Semillas has continued this program of supporting young leaders, but has changed it to make it only open to indigenous women in three states—Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero. In Guerrero, there is now a group of indigenous women called the Organization of Indigenous Women in the State of Guerrero. 80 percent of its members have received MacArthur Foundation grants. This is not something that we tried to push specifically, it is the result of the very strong leadership involved. The women are now working together from very different regions. Even male organizations take them into account in every step that they take in their initiatives within the states. Recently, there was a book published by a woman that outlines the work they do, and it is really just amazing to listen to all of the testimonies of these indigenous women, whom we have supported for so many years, and to see what they have accomplished. We’re collaborating with women who work tirelessly to help their local communities and now they are all joining forces across different states. I know most of these indigenous leaders—I started to get to know them when I was working at the MacArthur Foundation—so it’s really very dear to me.
7. In your opinion, what kinds of policies and initiatives can the Mexican government undertake in order to better protect and promote the welfare of the women in the country?
There is a gap between government rhetoric and reality. The first thing that the government should do is stick to its word and really do what it says it will do.
There are many very good initiatives that are underway, and good public policies—many of which don’t arise from the government’s own initiative but from external pressure, from the UN, for example. Speaking of the issues we address, for instance, sexual and reproductive rights, the fact that the government has followed some of the world conferences—for example, in Cairo, Beijing and CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women)—all of these international agreements have been very useful for the women’s movement in Mexico because they serve as instruments that oblige the government to implement certain policies. The problem is how we effectively enforce these policies. Again, I think it’s important that the government does what it says it will do. There are some initiatives that are starting to work, but, unfortunately, this has to do more with the people who are in charge of these initiatives and not so much the initiatives themselves. For example, we now have a governmental council against discrimination. The man who is President of this council is very prominent and he’s doing a great job. They recently released a national security policy on the different types of discrimination we are facing. It’s amazing! I think this is going to be key in holding the government to its commitments.
There are very interesting data on discrimination against women, but also data on discrimination against indigenous populations, homosexuals, lesbians, a lot of different minority populations. I think the government should also look very carefully at data to design their future public policies.
And, of course, the other very important things are education, equality policies and responses to violence—this is not only for women, even if women are more seriously affected by violence, but for the entire population, which is living in a critical situation caused by the war against organized crime. I firmly believe this should stop. Popular discontent is increasing as people begin to speak out against the war.
8. To what extent have women been affected by the Mexican drug war, and to what extent has this aggravated their situation?
Unfortunately, in these kinds of situations women are always the most affected—directly, because you see, for example, what is happening in Juarez. It’s mainly women who are disappearing and being killed. One part of organized crime activities involves human trafficking and most of those trafficked are women—young women and girls. There are also some boys and men who are being trafficked, but it’s mainly women and girls.
There are also some other indirect ways in which women are affected. They have to deal with the death of their children, for example. There’s also a phenomenon now in which perpetrators of organized crime force women to commit their crimes for them, because women are a lot weaker, so to speak, and less empowered—so they can’t escape involvement in organized crime. There are very many ways in which women are being affected by this war.
9. In terms of the organizations that you support, do you fix a number each year? How does it work—for example, how do you select your grantees?
This varies in relation to where the money comes from. More and more international donors, European or American organizations, want to assign their resources to specific issues. We have some funding that is specific to sexual and reproductive rights, for instance. I can give you the example of the MacArthur Foundation again, which supports programs run by individual leaders, all of whom are working on issues like maternal mortality and the sexual health of young people—two issues that the MacArthur Foundation supports. But then, we have other donors like the Kellogg Foundation, or foundations that work through another organization that is supporting us in the work we are doing around women’s right to choose. And we have a big fund from the Dutch Government through its FLOW (Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women) Initiative and, through this fund, we are supporting women who are working on labor rights.
We also have a ‘big bag’ where we put all the money that comes from individual donors, at the national or international level, and we use this money for open proposals—we get very different proposals. For example, in the state of San Luis Potosi, one of Mexico´s central states, we were presented with a proposal to consider how the local media is dealing with gender issues and its effects on women. Some media exploit women as real objects, so this organization aims to show the various ways in which women´s images are being used and for what purposes. We receive diverse proposals, from things like this to spontaneous proposals that consider violence against women. We cover a very broad and wide range of women’s rights issues.
The responsibility of choosing which projects we support is handed over to a Selection Committee. The staff makes a recommendation or a pre-selection, and then we send it to the Committee, which selects the projects to support. We really try to be very transparent in the management of our funds. Of course it varies from year to year because we work with some foundations that give us money for one year while others give us money for three years—and they vary in the amounts they give. I can say that on average we have a budget of between one and two million dollars.
Also, the difference between the money we receive from sources outside the country and the money we manage to raise inside the country varies, but usually more than 80% comes from foreign sources.
10. What do you envisage for the future, in terms of strategy for the organization? What is Semillas’ longer term plan?
We have a strategic plan until 2015. We will keep on doing the work we have been doing, of course, but adjusting our activities to the current situation. We now have three cross-cutting programs which include: migration, security for human rights defenders, and gender violence. These are issues that affect our grantee partners regardless of what issue they are focusing on. We are trying to educate our donors and convince them that—even though we understand that they want their money to go directly to the groups and to see the concrete results of their support—we’re dealing with very difficult times and Semillas is not only directly strengthening the groups but also building a movement. I was telling you about the work in Guerrero, which is the result of other work we do and of which you can only see results after many years. You cannot say “We will fund you for one year and we want all of these results”.
I think we now have a very strong case for the “added-value” or the other benefits that Semillas offers to women’s organizations and the women’s movement in the country. Donors really need to start supporting the work of Semillas, even if it’s not the direct work that the groups do. Sometimes, we end up strengthening groups that only work on, let’s say, labor rights—but some of these women are also raped. We really want them to understand that human rights are interdependent—you can’t have perfect labor rights if all of your other rights are being violated. We are trying to create a deeper, more comprehensive way of working with our organizations.
11. I think the point you’ve just made is crucial—that this is long term work that you’re investing in. I think, on one hand, there’s this demand for transparency and, as you said, concrete, tangible results, but the domain in which your organization is working and W4 is working demands a lot more subtlety than that. How are you dealing with your reporting issues for your donors (I’m thinking about your bigger financial backers)? You’re also working with such a varied group of organizations—how do you go about reporting methodology?
We get information from different sources. One is the report that the group itself gives to us. Then, we normally give the groups a chance to choose an advisor. Sometimes this is someone from their own community and sometimes this is someone from the academic world or from the activist world, depending on the project. We also receive a report from this advisor.
We, ourselves, write a report when we go to visit the groups, in which we try to include testimonials that we call “juicy nuggets”. Usually, groups don’t write these down in their own reports because they think testimonials are trivial, silly things. For instance, being able to talk in a different way with their husbands is something that they would never allow themselves to write down in a report, but this is really crucial because it illustrates a huge change. We try very hard to get this information from them.
Finally, we know that among all of the women’s funds and women’s organizations, especially grassroots—and all the more so if they are indigenous—the cultural vision differs greatly. So we are trying to create a pool that brings together other organizations in different parts of the world because we are dealing with the same problems. We are working closely, for example, with AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development) and we’re part of the International Network of Women’s Funds.
12. Are there any tools in particular that you’re inclined to use or is this a work in progress?
Right now, we don’t have one tool in particular. There are a lot of tools that already exist, but Semillas—along with other women’s funds—is developing the best tools and seeking to establish the most systematic way of recording the work of the groups, in addition to the reports given by the groups and their advisors, as well as the testimonies of the grantee partners.
by Women’s WorldWide Web
After almost three years at Semillas, Dr. Blanca Rico stepped down as Executive Director in November 2012. Semillas’ new Executive Director since December 2012 is Laura Garcia (laura.garcía[at]semillas.org.mx)