This month we feature an interview with Stella Maris Molina (@Geostella), president of Fundación Markani, in Argentina. The organization was selected as 1 of the 6 winners of the Legal Empowerment and Community Lawyering Innovation Lab initiative for Latin America, organized by the Legal Empowerment Network, with the support of the Tinker Foundation.
The mission of our organization is to promote the active participation of people through the full exercise of their human rights, further the integration of socially vulnerable communities, raise awareness about the importance of building a peaceful and inclusive society with a gender perspective, and substantively influence public policies, thus contributing to the global justice movement.
We work with women from indigenous and rural or peasant communities who are exposed to different vulnerabilities, focusing on their access to justice and economic empowerment, and promoting the building of networks to generate processes that lead to gender equity and equal rights for women. Through awareness-raising activities, direct assistance, counseling and training, we address the issue of high rates of domestic and gender-based violence, which is completely naturalized within the communities.
We also promote the use of complementary strategies between the existing legal framework and the community conflict resolution methods in order to ensure that communities can access and exercise their rights. The rapid pace of globalization and processes to identify new sites for resource exploitation has accelerated land clearing and the installation of extractive industries (oil, mining) in their territories, with devastating consequences for the lands and ways of living of the communities. Extractive projects are carried out without the communities’ free, prior and informed consent, undermining their essential right to self-determination. As an organization, we aim to achieve changes in the norms and procedures that regulate these conflicts through the use of dispute resolution methods such as intercultural mediation and restorative justice.
We train bilingual indigenous and rural women leaders as intercultural legal advocates with a gender and human rights perspective through a “legal literacy” program on existing legislation and access to justice. We started the program in the Aymara and Colla communities and have decided to replicate it throughout the province (Salta), where 32 different ethnic groups live.
We also train community-elected leaders as bilingual community mediators. This training is based on permanent dialogue and information, and promotes the use of the knowledge and culture of the communities as a tool to resolve their conflicts. The program has been accredited by the Secretariat of Alternative Methods of Conflict Resolution of the Ministry of Justice of the province and mayors have provided mediators with offices within municipal facilities to carry out their work.
Legal empowerment promotes and strengthens women’s leadership and participation, as well as revalues the communities’ legal systems and helps to prevent different types of violence experienced within and by those communities.
It is essential for communities to know their rights, because this knowledge means freedom: being able to decide what they want and do not want to do.
The greatest challenge we have in the communities is the lack of access to technology and connectivity, which adds to the particular situation of inaccessibility to their territories caused by the pandemic. To address these problems, we have resorted to other ways of reaching the communities, such as through community radio stations, and we have concluded agreements with local governments to have a space within municipal facilities to train women. By appealing to corporate social responsibility, we have also managed to get a telephone company to provide equipment for women. We have also promoted, as a practical exercise in consultation processes, the creation of a community management roundtable where the indigenous councils of the communities and the legal advocates meet to plan concrete actions to fulfil the communities’ needs. In these collective construction spaces, the use of technology is encouraged.
Another obstacle we came across is that of the legal validity of intercultural mediation agreements. These agreements still have to be homologated in judicial districts, which are located far away from the communities or in the capital city of Salta, -even further-, which makes the task very difficult.
Finally, the impact of the training of legal advocates and community mediators within their families and communities is another big challenge we face. The rupture of asymmetries resulting from the adoption of these new roles and the training itself generates conflicts within their communities. This has generated situations of physical violence towards women promoters and mediators, and even towards the organization’s team. To solve these issues we have appealed to the Councils of Elders, which allowed us to discuss our problems of insertion in the territory, review our objectives as an institution, and support legal advocates and community mediators. However, it has been difficult for them to decide to continue with the training, and in some cases they have decided not to do so in order to prioritize their safety and the welfare of their families.
How has being selected to be part of the Innovation Lab impacted on the work your organization does and the communities you work with?
The experience has been positive in many ways. It has had a great impact on the communities of Salta’s Yungas. Indigenous and rural/peasant women were validated by their communities as legal advocates and community mediators, leaving behind the patriarchal hegemony of the caciques. Consensus has been reached for them to participate in the meetings of the Councils of Elders with voice and vote and to use technological devices for educational and field work purposes, even in those communities where the use of technology is restricted not only because of connectivity issues but mainly due to their own customs.
In addition, the Secretariat of Alternative Methods of Conflict Resolution of the Ministry of Justice and the Secretariat of Access to Justice of the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the province got involved in the issues we work with. We were invited to a face-to-face open forum with public officials to share the experience and results of our Innovation Lab project, and also to an inter-ministerial roundtable to participate in the planning of public policies to be developed in 2021. Other state agencies, both at the provincial and national levels, have also shown interest in what we do.
Sustainability is guaranteed by training women leaders as legal advocates and community mediators, who then become agents of change and share their knowledge and skills with other women from their communities.
To ensure the continuity of our work, we also negotiate with the Ministry of Education of the province to incorporate school mediation as an extracurricular activity in the educational program, we foster a permanent dialogue with legal advocates, we carry out citizen monitoring of local public policies, we promote advocacy actions to achieve legislation and public policies in favor of women, and we train and raise awareness among public officials on gender and human rights to transform the patriarchal paradigm.
It is necessary to fight for alternative conflict resolution methods to become complementary. It is important that they are taken into account as a real and concrete possibility to improve the administration of justice in relation to vulnerable sectors such as indigenous and rural communities, whose cosmovision embraces this form of justice.
Legal professionals should not only have full knowledge of the laws but should also reflect on how they are applied, incorporate active listening, acknowledge the broad possibilities of negotiation, be creative when thinking of alternatives, and help solve problems.
Do you have any recommendations for a book, a quote, a resource or piece of art or music that keeps you or your team inspired and motivated?
Adasme Calisto, E. y Quinteros Flores, C. (2014). “La mediación comunitaria y/o vecinal: un aporte a la democratización social y un nuevo espacio para el trabajo social de comunidad”, Revista Perspectivas, No. 25, 221-239.
Alés, J. (13 febrero de 2014). “Memoria de un año al servicio de Triana”, El Cofre de los Tesoros de la Mediación. Blog de debate y participación sobre la mediación como técnica de resolución de conflictos. Recuperado de El Cofre de los Tesoros de la Mediación: MEMORIA DE UN AÑO AL SERVICIO DE TRIANA.
Alzate Sáez de Heredia, R., Fernández Villanueva, I. y Merino Ortiz, C. (2013). “Desarrollo de la cultura de la paz y la convivencia en el ámbito municipal: la mediación comunitaria”, Política y sociedad, 50(1), 179-194.
You can learn more about Fundación Markani on their social media.
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_Member Spotlights are short profile articles focusing on members of the Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read about organizations in our network at #memberspotlight.