Olivia Crellin, shortlisted in the Guardian Development Journalism Competition, travelled with CARE to Ecuador. In part two of her blog she heads to Machala. She meets two women who defy her expectations.
Ferried around Machala to the houses of domestic workers so that Ivan, our photographer could capture the women at ease in their natural environment, we were plied with various Ecuadorian dishes, fruit and an incredible lunch of fresh fish, rice and salad. The care with which these women look after strangers, as well as their employers’ homes and children, is in strong contrast with what time and energy they are left with to look after their own.
The poverty they struggle with is a challenge. After meeting various women whose stories were full of the hardship of failed relationships, early pregnancies, marital abuse, lack of education and rape, it was obvious that beneath the theme of domestic work were many other problems. Stereotypically, one associates these problems with poverty and gender inequality. Fighting for a decent wage and respect for such women will also have a knock-on effect on those issues, just as any work aimed at improving the lot of domestic workers must also realize the context of such work. Again I felt how much was at stake.
I had insisted fairly early on, when The Guardian and CARE International were putting together the itinerary for my trip, that I wanted to speak to a domestic worker’s employer – get both sides of the story.
If there was one thing about the issue that I found most fascinating it was the class divisions between Ecuadorean women that splintered a feminist sentiment. That saw those who could afford help enjoy freedom and economic progress, whilst costing their employees their basic education and rights.
In Machala I got this opportunity, meeting with the female mayor of the city, Patricia Enrique, who had been in touch with the women’s organization El Movemiento de Mujeres del Orden who were hosting us. Even I felt unkempt sitting in the spotless marble living room in a huge condominium that had no doubt been lovingly polished to perfection by a domestic worker.
This glamorous woman spoke of the love between her and the almost twenty different women who had worked for her in various capacities during her lifetime. Her nanny through to the carer of her elderly father. She was grateful for their help and saw her domestic workers as women who were an essential part of her family. Often, she confided, her children and grandchildren won’t listen to her but take advice and gentle coercing from the domestic worker instead. I was very ready to judge this woman, having seen the 2011 U.S. film ‘The Help’ but on the surface it did not appear that she was one of the abusive and disrespectful women whom we had so often heard described by the domestic workers.
Fighting back to domestic abuse
On the other side of the city in a very different type of dwelling, seemingly held together only by the objects inside it, we found another woman that defied expectations. In spite of coming from a family of generations of maids and being brought up with no other prospects than to be a domestic worker, Maria Rubela Candela, 42, has transformed her life and has become as much a pillar of her community as Machala’s mayor.
Standing up for her rights at home was were it all started. Like many domestic workers, María’s husband used to beat her and it wasn’t until one day, when the President of El Movemiento de Mujeres told her to stop complaining, that she took out a stick and finally hit him back. She hasn’t looked back since then. Last year she sent her own brother to jail for hitting his wife.
Her house serves as a library-study-weekend disco. She keeps leaflets on women’s and domestic workers’ rights, and is currently studying for an online degree. She says it is better that the children are dancing in her house late at night than on the streets smoking and doing drugs. She tells us with glee how CARE fulfilled her dream of flying in an aeroplane when they sent her as a delegate to a convention of domestic workers in Peru.
Maria never had the same opportunities as Ms Enrique but had managed to empower herself. Unlike many domestic workers still living in the shadow of the prejudices and perceptions of their job, Maria values herself and what she can contribute. Now she wants to write a book about her life and finish training as a sociologist or lawyer so she can help the women’s movement.
Many other domestic workers have similar dreams. The most common being to set up a micro-business to facilitate making money from home, so as not to lose time with their own children in the employment of looking after someone else’s. Moving south-east towards the temperate city of Loja away from the sticky humidity of Machala change was already on the wind and I prepared myself to get to grips on the basics of microfinance and how this gives women another option.
About the author:
Olivia Crellin is a young freelance journalist currently based in Santiago, Chile.