From child labourer to women's rights defender

At the age of 8, Lucrecia Huayhua Choque was sent away by her parents from her Aymara community in the town of Cocapacabana to the city of La Paz (155 km away), where she began looking after an 8-month old girl. "My boss made me sleep under the stairs with the dog. I worked there for four years. I left without ever being paid," she recalls.

Although she enjoyed studying, she could only complete fourth grade because she had to work to support her large family of 12 brothers and sisters. "My family lacked food, clothes, everything," she explains.

At her next job, Ms. Huayhua Choque carried out various tasks for more than a dozen people, with workdays exceeding 20 hours, until the age of 22. All this without a salary, vacation days or other social security. "They gave me basic supplies for my siblings... My employer would always tell me I was worthless and useless. Those things stay with you... At the time I had no self-esteem," she pointed out.

According to a joint study by the UN and Bolivian Ministry of Work and Social Security, at least 848,000 children between the ages of 5 and 17 (28 per cent of that population) are engaged in exploitative economic activities in Bolivia—at least 60 per cent of whom are girls.[1]

Ms. Huayhua Choque returned to her community at the age of 22 and within a month was 'kidnapped' by the man who is still her husband today. After being locked away for three days, both sets of parents agreed to a forced union, according to local custom. "A woman cannot say she doesn't want to get married because it brings dishonour", she explains.

Her married life was difficult. "I was not aware of my rights, always lived in subordination, was badly treated, and always obeyed orders because that's what I learned in my childhood", said Ms. Huayhua Choque, now a mother of five children.

But her perspective started to change after participating in workshops organized by the Organización de Mujeres Aymaras del Kollasuyo (Organization of Aymara Women in the Kollasuyo, OMAK) about women's rights, as the basis to strengthen their economic empowerment. She was later selected by OMAK to attend the School for Women Leaders, an initiative supported by UN Women's Fund for Gender Equality, via the NGO network Coordinadora de la Mujer (Women's Coordinator).

Her mother encouraged her to take part in the workshops and Leaders' School, despite her husband's opposition.

"If you don't leave your house, you'll die beaten, tortured, mistreated and without knowing what's going on around you. You see violence in your own and other households and you say: this is my life, this is my fate—this is how I'm to die," she recalls.

Women leaders are nominated by various women's organizations to attend the School for Women Leaders. The year-long course is divided into four modules with in-person week-long classroom sessions in three regions of Bolivia. It covers topics such as depatriarchalization, decolonization, state structures and women's rights, political advocacy and women's history.

Ms. Huayhua Choque recalls that when she started she didn't even know the meaning of the word 'gender', not to mention 'sisterhood', and said that she improved her self-esteem as she learned about the Constitution of the State and sexual and reproductive rights. She said it was "a novelty to know my body, to love myself, to value myself, because I had never been valued, except by my parents."

She soon began teaching other women, reading the notebooks she was given at OMAK workshops and at the School, and drawing to transfer this knowledge to others.

"This project has helped participating women to understand their rights and improve their self-esteem, teach and replicate time these profound changes with other women" says interim UN Women Representative in Bolivia, Carolina Taborga, highlighting the importance of programmes to advance substantive change in women's lives. "One of the priorities of our work in Bolivia is to increase women's leadership and participation, as well as end violence against women and girls."

Ms. Huayhua Choque is now 47 and works for OMAK, sharing her knowledge of women's and girls' rights and struggling against violence in various urban and rural communities.

"The OMAK technical team is committed to enabling women leaders who know their rights and have been strengthened by economic empowerment to develop and implement gender equality in their lives," says OMAK President Andrea Flores.

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