“Our purpose is to fight for the rights of women so that we can live in a society of equality and justice,” says the organisation’s spokeswoman Jossie Pantojas as she reflected on the past 15 years.
- As the Puerto Rican Organisation of Working Women celebrates its 15th anniversary this month, officials are taking a long, hard look at the situation of women in the country and the road ahead for this non-governmental organisation.
And foremost on the minds of the women who head the Organisation of Working Women (OPMT) is government’s health reform programme which has just taken off, but which when completed will leave dozens of women in the health sector out of jobs.
“It is women who are most affected by the health reform, because we are the ones who are supposed to get medical attention whenever a family member gets sick. Most health workers in Puerto Rico are women. However, when labour organisations attack the health reform, they ignore the gender aspect of the issue,” says Pantojas.
The reform in the sector will also mean, they say, fewer public health facilities available for poor women.
Under the reform programme hospitals and other public health facilities are to be closed as government seeks to adopt the US system of managed health care in an effort to cut back on expenditure in this sector.
One of the main areas of concern for the OPMT is that since, with the exception of positions for doctors, women fill most of the other jobs in the sector, many will be thrown into the unemployment line. Unemployment in the country is now in the region of 13.8 percent.
Over the last 15 years the OPMT has been instrumental, through its work in labour unions and other popular organisations, in facilitating the participation of women at the highest level in the country’s decision-making processes.
For instance, there are now six women in Puerto Rico’s 52-member House of Representatives and a similar number in the 27-member Senate.
In addition the OPMT has been lobbying for a revision of patriarchal attitudes and practices that marginalise working women from the frontlines of struggles for social change. The organisation views their presence and militancy as essential in such struggles.
Its work has included, over the years, a crusade against domestic violence, the defense of reproductive rights, work on occupational safety and health, addressing sexist stereotypes in the mass media, and lobbying the legislature for or against bills that affect women’s rights.
It was through the influence of the OPMT that Law 54 which criminalises domestic violence was passed back in 1989 and the Law prohibiting sexual harassment at the workplace passed in 1988.
Now these women have another item on their agenda. They are campaigning for the release of Puerto Rico’s 15 prisoners in American jails. Five of these prisoners are women who have been accused of belonging to clandestine organisations that engage in armed struggle to bring about the country’s independence from the US. Some have been imprisoned for more than a decade.
This fight has brought the women in the group the label “subversive”, It is a label which they do not, however, deny.
“Yes, we feminists are subversive, and we have every right to be. What’s more, we have the obligation to be subversive. We have to be in order to achieve equality for women, and to achieve the recognition of our capabilities, freedom, power and diversity,” says OPMT member Esther Vicente.
Meanwhile, other members argue that while some of their beliefs and strategies may have changed over the last 15 years their commitment to their cause remains just as firm as when they first began.
“Our discourse is not the same one that we had 15 years ago. Back then, we believed that national independence was absolutely necessary in order to improve the situation of women. We have evolved a lot since then.
“Today, those of us who believe in national independence believe that both goals must be pursued simultaneously”, says Pantojas.