Our delegation was invited to visit the district of Agua Blanca, over 600,000 people crammed into the poorest housing to the east of Cali. We have been invited to a meeting of the Community Mothers who provide creche facilities for pre-school children.
We meet in a small house in a row that forms part of a tight grid of similar houses spread across this particular district. It has a small square front part, and tiny bedrooms with a small neat kitchen and yard at the back. The concrete floors and walls are as they were built but are decorated with colourful paintings done by the children. It is here in their front rooms that the community mothers provide care for up to twelve children each, whilst their parents are at work. It is an essential service for poor families who need both parents’ income, and for the preponderance of households that are headed by a single female.
But we are here today to hear that the Colombian state does not value these women, as it should. Instead the ability of community mothers to care for children is being eroded by poor pay, high charges on services and the continuing disruption to community life caused by the forced displacement of millions of people from rural areas.
Fifteen mothers are here with us, and community leader Fabiola Ramos begins to explain what they do and why. She says that up to 55% of community mothers are heads of household or have husbands/partners with no or irregular income. For providing care for up to 12 children in her home, spending the day looking after each child’s particular needs and encouraging them in creative work, each community mother is paid a small wage by the state (132,000 pesos, about £40). On top of this the government insists on charging community mothers commercial rates for services such as electricity and water. Considering they use their own homes as crËches and get so little pay this is outrageous. As Fabiola says they are carrying out work paid for by the state, but it does not treat them as proper workers. When I ask if they feel exploited by the state the answer is a unanimous ` Si! `
The women are acutely aware of the wider social context of this failing of Colombia’s young by the government. As Fabiola continues
`The two main presidential candidates Velez and Serpa favour policies that slowly reduce subsidies for consumptionÉ. they want to carry out the orders of the World Bank and the IMFÉthere are many youth on the streets, they have no opportunities to study, to build their own communities, to work. This is what generates the violence.`
This statement has particular resonance in light of the high recruitment rates of young working class men into the army and paramilitaries. Often this is their only opportunity for regular paid work.
The massive internal displacement from the rural reas is also making things harder for the community mothers. Poor living conditions for the internally displaced, the pressure on resources in an area experiencing huge influxes of refugees, and lack of resources for organising between departments often hundreds of miles apart means some areas are rapidly losing community mothers and no alternative option for the care of young children exists.
Fabiola continues in a vigorous denouncement of Plan Colombia the violence it creates, and the resources it diverts from social welfare;
`Our big economic problem is in terms of International recognition of social cultural and economic and social rights. The Colombian state doesn’t recognise them in any way whatsoever.’
One of the things that we’ve been beginning to demand is for state aid to improve the quality of housing which is important for the children. But this aid goes elsewhere. This is part of overall picture of corruption with the misadministration of resources.
We want the budget for community mothers to be increased, and that there is a special rate for services where social programmes are being carried out. We want that children are given proper healthcare, and that each child that is with us is able to go into public education-that each one should have a place.
Milena Olave a community and human rights worker adds:
`through the recent successful occupation by Sintraemcail the cost of services for the poorest stratas levels 1, 2 and 3* were prevented from being increased. What we are now calling for is to mobilize and to work with e recently elected congressman Alexander Lopez to change law 142.`
Fabiola tells us that at 9am the next day the community mothers will be at a protest because they haven’t been paid for the past two months.
`The state is saying that the community mother must manage herself as though she is a commercial concern.`
`They say the war is against the Guerrillas but really it is against the campesinos, and they are our brothers and sisters, they grow the food that we in the cities need.
‘We demand that the war is ended and that there is no more Plan Colombia because the money is just for war.`
* Colombia’s urban population is classified into 6 levels, or strata. The working class makes up the three lowest levels, characterised as:
Level 1: no income, homeless
Level 2: house rented, may be owned; no or only irregular work
Level 3: regular work, but low-paid manual labour NOT professional work
85% of the population of Cali are classified level 1-3.