The main objective of the initiative is to transform the prospects of rural women in Pernambuco by equipping them with the personal and professional skills to bring about positive changes in their lives. The initiative arises out of a recognition that rural women live lives not only of exclusion, discrimination and exploitation, but also of reclusion. Always the care-givers, never those who are cared for, rural women have suffered centuries of being invisible to the state. This initiative recognises them, and, seeing them as citizens, reaches out to enable them to access the means to empower themselves. It does this through three principal strategies, each emerging from dialogue between social movements representing women, women’s organizations with decades of experience of working with rural women, State and local government.
First, the initiative seeks to improve women’s perceptions of their lives and capacities, transforming their sense of themselves. A key entry point is a course on public policies, which women must complete as a precursor to vocational skills training. The course addresses issues of gender, race, ethnicity and power, and introduces the concept of public policies that are aimed at achieving greater gender and social justice. The objective is for women to recognise that they have a right to have rights, and to know the rights they have as citizens. The course is delivered in an interactive format by trainers from women’s organizations with considerable experience of popular education methodologies. It builds on women’s experiences, creating a space in which women gain greater understanding of their own and others’ situations.
Second, the initiative creates real opportunities for women’s economic empowerment. Negotiations carried out by the SecMulher have resulted in public training institutions lowering the bar for women’s entry, on the grounds of their historical disadvantage. Access to these institutions enables women to gain high quality vocational training that will enable them to compete in the labour market. Recognising the practical barriers experienced by women in accessing education, Chapéu de Palha provides transport, food and childcare. Women take vocational courses in skills such as soldering, plumbing, electrics and plastering, challenging limiting beliefs amongst themselves, their teachers and their communities that these are “men’s jobs” and women are unable to do them.
Third, the initiative has sought to rapidly institutionalise support for women graduates and to create a network that can sustain the changes that the programme is bringing about. More than a thousand graduates from the public policies course have been trained as educators, forming part of a network of community-based agents. A similar number have been trained as ‘recreadoras’, who keep children entertained and cared for while women take the courses. Provisions for the courses are sourced locally, where possible from women’s micro-enterprises. Stronger women’s organizations have worked alongside newer, less experienced organizations, helping them to gain experience and capacity. SecMulher has helped municipal councils establish their own secretariats, strengthening the capacity of the state at the local level to deliver on policies for women.