San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Women of Chira Take Control of Destiny

ISLA CHIRA, Puntarenas – ForLiliana Martínez, fishing in the economicallydepressed area of Isla Chira was away of life – a life that was leading manymembers of the community down a road ofpoverty.A single dead fish the size of her forearmis in Martínez’s sink. Normally, everyonein her family eats a whole fish forlunch, she says. But today her husbandcaught only one that was too small to sell.“We didn’t want to keep fishingbecause it was not fruitful anymore,”Martínez explained. “Before, we would goout fishing and come home with emptyhands and it kept getting worse. We decidedwe had to do one of two things: Leavethe island or change the work situationhere,” she said as her almond-shaped eyeswidened for dramatic effect.Martínez helped form a group – theAssociation of Ecotourism Women of IslaChira – to provide more employmentoptions on the island located in the Gulf oNicoya. She, along with Teodora Medina,Isabel Cruz and Marta Calderon, are theonly ones left in the ambitious women’sgroup that once boasted 11 members. Afterincreasing pressure from the town, one byone, the other women quit.WHEN the women were out to sea,their boats huddled together, they fishedfor ideas.No one in town gave much merit totheir far-fetched dreams. Husbands calledtheir wives crazy. Neighbors called themvagrants. Others said theywanted to corrupt theisland by bringing indrugs and prostitutes andother problems.“The people were somad at us,” Medina saidquietly. “The pressurewas incredible,” she said,lightly wiping crumbs offthe countertop with herstrong hands.But, the women needed an employmentoption that did not include fishing –rare on an island that only features a fewpulperias, a bakery, an elementary schoolin each of the five towns, one high schooland a medical clinic. There are no gas stationsor large restaurants or stores thatwould need employees – no hospitals orfactories (see separate story, W-5).“We had to build a business, anything,”Martínez said. “We had a lot ofideas, but someone said ‘Wouldn’t it benice to have cabins?’We would like peoplefrom other countries to come here since wecan’t go to other places.”MARTÍNEZ’S voice rises in excitementand she soundsalmost like a child whenshe speaks about the project.“We thought it wouldbe beautiful to makefriends with people fromother places.”When a group fromthe Universidad Nacionalcame to visit the island,the women finally got theencouragement they needed.“There was so much negative pressureon us,” Medina said. “We might not haveaccomplished what we did without it,” she said, referring to the added desire it producedin the women to accomplish their goal.The group went to a meeting with theUnited Nations’ Small Donations Committeeand received financial and moral support inthe form of $20,000 and meetings full ofbusiness suggestions and advice.“For the women, the possibility of survivingis even more precarious since manydon’t have access tothe sea because of thehigh cost of boats andmotors as well as thesocial cost of raisingchildren,” cited a U.N.project descriptionsheet. “These situationsrequire positiveactions to diversifywork options in theGulf of Nicoya andspecifically in IslaChira.”THE women’sassociation is one ofseveral women’sgroups in the Nicoya Peninsula funded bythe United Nations.“In the beginning, nobody believed inthe project, but now, in the whole community,there is a lot more respect,” saidEduardo Mata, the U.N. coordinator ofSmall Donations, who has been workingwith the group for three years.Before, many members of the communityrefused to even go look at the women’sproject of building a cabin to host tourists(See separate story, W-8). Now, theAssociation of Fishermen and Women holdmeetings at the cabin’s spacious eating area.“We were women with a lot of fear,”Martínez said quietly, while walking homein the dark. “It was very difficult to go to the(U.N.) meeting in San José. We didn’t havepermission from our husbands and so wewent without permission. When they foundout they were terribly upset.”The group was also invited to severalconferences on self-esteem, where a womanpsychologist told them they were brave,beautiful and strong. She said they had aright to live without the fear of aggression.THE conferences made an impact onMartínez. When she got home to her furioushusband, she told him, “I am a healthywoman. I am a mother. I have a right to livea healthy life and you do not have the rightto keep me from doing what I need to do forthe good of the family.”“I began to lose my fear and began toknow the laws that support women. At theend of a year, my lifehad completelychanged. I could say,‘I’m going to work onthe cabins’ and I wentand worked calmly.And that’s how everythingstarted,” saidMartínez, noddingand smiling proudly.And so thewomen began a laborintensive year-longproject, in 2001, andovercame all odds tobuild a cabin anddiversify the workforce on the island.ALTHOUGH the simple log cabin maybe roughing it for people from the city, itmay be considered a luxury to people on theisland.The residents of Chira live in poverty.Their few roads are dirt. Some homes havedoorways, but no doors, windows but nowindow coverings. In these homes, roomsare separated by sheets. Kitchens and bathroomsare commonly found outside thehome.Doors are not a necessity, since crime isnot an issue on the island.“The kids get out of school at 11 and ifthey’re not home by noon, it doesn’t evencross your mind that something has happenedto them,” Martínez said, watching hertwo young sons kick the soccer ball around.“If they’re not home, it’s because they’replaying. You don’t have to worry here.”And now with the additional incomefrom tourists, Martínez, and the otherwomen in her group, also don’t have toworry about feeding their families.

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