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CEFEMINA, a world inside a world
by Jan Spence

A non-profit organization in Costa Rica creates community development and bright futures for women and families. 

CEFEMINA, a feminist information and action center, is located in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, and is dedicated to improving the quality of life and creating equal opportunities for women. It is a private, nonprofit organization funded by European and American corporations.

Sociologist Marta Trejos is the co-founder and Executive Director of CEFEMINA and the co-ordinator of Woman and the Environment in Central America. She is highly respected in Central America for her dedication, but she always responds modestly: "It isn't I who is important. It's the team that does the work."

There is indeed a hard-working team of both staff and volunteers. And there is a wide variety of programs available nationwide -- housing, health, education, nutrition, environment, theatre and arts. It is said that "CEFEMINA is a world inside a world."

The most visible program is the housing development at Guarari, a suburb of San Jose. The program had its beginnings in the dissatisfaction of a group of women who lived in the slums of San Jose. They campaigned with the slogan "Homes not Slums." They fought for the wide open spaces and fresh air of the countryside. They fought with dignity to improve their standard of living in the creation of a community-based development. The government looked approvingly on their demands, and construction of new houses began in 1987.

Ericka Brealey, six years with CEFEMINA and General Administrator of Programs, said that women participated in the designing of the homes. "Who else but women know better the needs of the family?" she asked. "For example, the doors of the houses do not open onto the street; they open into common areas, green areas. Children can play safely in courtyards."

To receive a house, each family had to work 1,000 hours in self-help housing programs, not necessarily at the building site. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and went to work. There were many jobs to be done -- preparing meals for the work crew, taking care of children, serving on committees.

Volunteers from all over the world played a large role in the family housing project, assisting in areas of nutritional counseling, hygiene, birth control, sanitation, and social legislation. A new community was developed, introducing a new way of life. "We're very grateful to the volunteers," Ericka said. "They are very valuable to the social program. We have no money to pay for professionals. The volunteers live with local families and work within the programs. How else can they learn the real problems of the community, unless the community is a part of their lives?"

Over 6,000 homes, two schools, facilities for group activities and a water treatment plant were constructed with the support of Costa Rican Presidents Arias and Calderon. The model development boasts recreational areas, protected plant species, cultivation of vegetables, and animal rearing. But the building project came to a halt in 1994 under the new policies of current President Figueres. He has made housing policy changes that do not support CEFEMINA's project at Guarari.

There is more land waiting for construction there and some 70,000 families waiting for a new home. About 1,500 families have already built shacks on the land -- calling it "an organized invasion." With their presence on the property, they are making the statement: "We have worked on this land. We want to construct a home here."

Many of the families waiting for a home in Guarari live on a steep hillside in Los Cuadros, an urban slum area in San Jose. Steps are carved out of the bare earth. There are acres and acres of one-room shacks, all attached, made of corrugated zinc and heavy cardboard. One long shack, consisting of three rooms, houses three families -- 12 women and 6 children. At least 25 per cent of the population of Los Cuadros are mothers with children and without a husband. Most of them are teenagers. Some baby-sit so that the others can look for work. A single mother's income is about 4,000 to 6,000 colones a month, less than $30 US.

Prevention of violence

CEFEMINA has received international recognition for its network of support groups for battered women. Group therapy is offered and a hot line is available. "Mujer, No Estas Sola" -- "Woman, You Are Not Alone" -- has helped 5,000 women nationwide. Those who formerly were ashamed to report violence have learned that there are others who have suffered abuse. "Again," Ericka explains, "who else are the best experts, but women who have already been abused and have overcome their abusive husbands? They come to speak to women who are abused and manipulated by their husbands. The women are taught self-esteem and empowerment. They are advised that they can get free legal help with a network of lawyers. The government looks to this program for assistance."

With the Business Credit Program, CEFEMINA provides financial and technical assistance to low-income women who want to become small business owners. If a woman is clear on her business ambitions and has been rejected for a loan by the bank, she can apply to the Credit Program. Through a signed agreement with the Inter-American Development Bank, CEFEMINA has financed such enterprises as beauty shops and construction companies. Already, 12 construction companies are owned and operated by women. They have learned skills in building their own homes and are now earning a living in construction. Forty-two homes have been constructed and sold within this program. An auto-repair shop owned by a woman is also operating successfully.

Ericka proudly said: "Women are becoming self-confident, learning how to administrate a business in the midst of all the variables that are a part of a woman's life."

The statistics are discouraging -- many Costa Rican children of low-income families are repeating the same grade or dropping out. Because education is the key to a better life, a new program has evolved for grades one through eleven. College students receive a small fee for tutoring children with learning disabilities. They hold private classes to increase skills, motivation and self-esteem, and to prepare for tests.

"This program is already very successful," Ericka stated. "It is actually changing cultural patterns. For example, at the first class when a child is asked: 'What do you want to be when you grow up?', he will respond: 'A taxi driver.' After a few months of classes, to the same question he will respond: "I want to be like you, an engineer."

There is hardly an issue not addressed by CEFEMINA. Godparents for Peace seeks to improve the quality of life for senior citizens and children living below the poverty level. The godparents seek out children who are at high risk of falling prey to drugs and delinquency and they offer alternative experiences. Trees for Life is a project for school children throughout the country in which children create their own plant nursery, using fruit trees and native species in danger of extinction. Hidroponia is a project that enables senior citizens and persons with disabilities to grow vegetables and herbs in limited spaces, either for their own consumption or to be sold to the public.

"We make a big impact at a very low cost," Ericka said. "Only one-third of our staff are paid. The highest salary is about US$350 a month." She is a college graduate, and earns $300 a month. Asked if she had rejected job offers at many times her salary from international corporations, Ericka responded: "Yes. But when I wake up in the morning, I can look into the mirror and touch my face and say: 'You are doing the right thing.' There's no money in the world that can pay for those moments." 

From the April 1996 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005