“I want to occupy the spaces that have been denied to us, those spaces that were not intended for Black women, but that today we have now occupied,” said Daniela López of Mexico and 2019 Study of the United States Institute (SUSI) alumna.
August 31, 2021 marks, for the first time ever, the International Day for People of African Descent, which celebrates and promotes the extraordinary contributions of African-descendant communities. In recognition of this, and other days that commemorate African-descendant communities and individuals, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) spoke with several women from across the Western Hemisphere and asked them what impact they want to make on the world and their ideas for addressing intersecting challenges, like sexism and racism, faced by women from these communities in the region. This article features portions of those interviews with Consuela Maai of Suriname, Paola Meza of Paraguay, Thaís Rosa Pinheiro of Brazil, Aurelia Satuyé of Guatemala, and Daniela López of Mexico.
“The invisibility of Afro-Latina, Afro-Caribbean, and African-descendant women, which is an example of structural racism, is reflected at all levels: social, economic, and political,” noted Thaís Rosa Pinheiro, CEO and founder of Conectando Territórios. Daniela López argued that “as women, we have a lot to contribute, our perspective is invaluable for social, political, and economic issues; no one can speak for us, and the exclusion of women in these conversations is evidence of discrimination and sexism.”
When asked to identify challenges African-descendant women from the region experience, several of the women pointed to barriers that are the result of centuries of inequality, including the fear of challenging deeply embedded sociocultural norms. One specific obstacle that was repeatedly pointed out is the lack of access to education or resources. “Education is the base through which we can form conscious human beings who understand that, despite gender, age, ethnic background, we are all citizens,” explained Aurelia Satuyé, a Fulbright Teaching Excellence Achievement alumna who today teaches at San Carlos University, the only public university in all of Guatemala. The interviewees emphasized that expanding access to education for Afro-Latina and Afro-Caribbean populations would not only benefit women and girls, but also countries and communities more broadly. The women leaders emphasized that with education comes diverse perspectives, which are key to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Paola Meza, a computer scientist and the creator of Feminism from the Drum, raised that Paraguay does not have a law that recognizes the African-descendant community and that developing public policy that recognizes their existence and inherent value could be a starting point in leveraging their unique perspective. Thaís also highlighted that “without [African-descendant women’s] voices, society cannot move forward… There is an urgent need to end the statistical invisibility of African-descendant women, which is an example of structural racism.” The interviewees make it clear that the contributions of Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean, and African-descendant women are vital to the progress and development of the countries in which they live.
It isn’t enough to simply acknowledge the gap in the recognition of Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean, and African-descendant women and the intersecting challenges of racism and sexism. Rather, we must identify creative solutions to addressing discriminatory norms and work to promote social inclusion. Our interviewees offered several recommendations to that end, including increasing the inclusion of and dialogue with women in these communities. “Not everyone has a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but they still have good ideas [on] how to be self-reliant to support their community. They can empower others to do the same,” remarked Consuela Maai.
Aurelia argues increasing representation may be done through the “private sector promoting equality in their recruitment process; NGOs and civil society raising our voices when racism is happening; educators promoting equality in the classroom; and, finally, politicians making sure laws are inclusive and respectful of the diversity of the country.” The steps each country might take may differ by location, but Thaís noted the need for “increasing connections and decreasing divisions, so we can develop equity and amplify the voices of Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean, and African-descendant women in the region. We need to start a dialogue at all levels to work together around these issues.”
We asked these five women to share their advice for young girls who aim to make an impact on the world.
“Just do you. Believe in yourself, stay unique. Do what you love to do, not what looks easy. [Be]cause [in] the long term, nothing is as easy [as] it seems. Take knowledge of what you want to do and try to upgrade every year.”
“Do not give up for fear of failure. Look for a way to do what you are passionate about, and always remember where you come from.”
Thaís Rosa Pinheiro
“The first advice is to take care of yourself first to be able to support others. Self-awareness is an important key. Know about your own values and needs. Be open to listen to oneself. Listening to others about community needs. To make a positive impact, we need to be open to be able to create a vision together. Develop a new ecosystem.”
“I would invite them to work hard to practice modesty, inclusion, and respect. These are important values when you aim to create an impact in your community. For me, leaders must inspire others, and often that is through example. Finally, it is important to have the gift of service, so they can share all they learn and help other girls and women from their communities benefit from their knowledge.”
“I would advise them to observe the problems and needs of their communities, and to give a proposed autonomous solution. Further, to look for their own sources and to question everything. To ask ourselves ‘Why?’ may give us perspectives that we may not have had at first glance.”
As Consuela, Paola, Thaís, Aurelia, Daniela, and all other women and girls working to make an impact on the region serve as inspiration to all of us, one thing remains clear: The global community, including governments, the private sector, and civil society, must work together and do more to address racial and gender discrimination and ensure that the voices of Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean, and African-descendant women are included in social, political, and economic life. The United States Government remains deeply committed to working with powerful women like these and other partners on the advancement of racial and gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women and girls in all their diversity.
About the author: Jacqueline Glago is a Student Summer Intern in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI). Jacqueline is currently completing undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame in the College of Arts and Letters, and is planning to graduate with a triple major: Political Science, Global Affairs (with a concentration in Civil and Human Rights) and Italian.