Indigenous women´s political participation in Mexico: Why legislation backfires

By Holly Worthen

Worthen photo

The low numbers of indigenous women elected to municipal governments in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico are notable.  Only around 11 percent of predominately indigenous villages have a woman serving as an official municipal authority. However, attempts over the last decade by legislators, judges, and women´s rights advocates to push women into local politics have been met with limited success.  When the government of the state of Oaxaca mandated that indigenous women serve on town councils in order to promote gender equity in local politics, many women rejected the initiative.  Why would these women not embrace the chance to participate in local governing bodies that have traditionally been closed to them? While doing research in a rural indigenous village in the mountains of Oaxaca, I found that this rejection is not because these women don´t care about local politics or don´t want to be involved.  Rather, it is because the terms of political participation are stacked against them.

Indigenous women in Latin America often live in contexts where local politics are run by different rules than those most U.S. citizens are used to.  Participation in village elections is not simply granted once someone turns 18.  Instead, in order to participate in village assemblies where new town leaders are chosen and where important decisions are made, one has to demonstrate his or her commitment to the community.  This is done through work: building the local school, smoothing out the gravel road, or cleaning up the nearby river.  Participation in town service (called cargo in Mexico) and collective work projects (tequio) is the path to becoming an “active citizen,” and a key aspect of indigenous practices of autonomy.

Work that counts toward local citizenship is gendered: traditionally, men do these tasks of town maintenance.  By engaging in this “official” collective work, they fulfill their obligations to the community and earn the right to participate in village assemblies.  Women, on the other hand, do a tremendous amount of work, but it is not the kind of work that “counts” for active citizenship.  They are responsible for food preparation, for child rearing, for planting and harvesting crops, for the care of farm animals, and for the organization of social and religious events.  But their participation in this work doesn´t give them the right to participate in the assembly.

The fact that women´s work does not count in the same way that men´s does is the main reason why women reject initiatives to push them into official political participation.

Structurally, women serve as a type of labor reserve in the village. It works something like this: men represent their entire household by doing official collective work and participating in the village assemblies.  When men have to leave their usual jobs in the fields to give their time and energy to the community, often for extended periods of time, women must take over their unfinished tasks.  Women do the men´s work, in addition to their own regular work.  Without women´s labor, it would be difficult for men to fulfill the communal obligations that are key to running and maintaining village governance, which are fundamental to local autonomy.

While this reflects a division of labor between men and women in the village, as heterosexual married couples make up the majority of the population in this region, it also often translates into a loss of political rights for women.  Because women are doing the more invisible tasks deemed to be “support” work for the men, they are not thought of as active citizens.  Women’s work does not count for the acts of public commitment deemed necessary to participate in local electoral assemblies.  Basically, they work, but they don´t vote, at least not directly.

One attempt to make this complex situation more inclusive is to allow women to start doing the official work that counts toward active citizenship. This would mean that they could vote in the village assembly, where community decisions are made, and be elected to leadership posts.  Indeed, in the village where I did my research, single and widowed women do just that. But they are not very happy about it.  They argue that instead of being a form of gendered inclusion, enforced political “participation” actually makes their lives more difficult.  This is because single women have to do it all by themselves.  They have to add on the tasks of public, official work to the already full-time work they do to maintain their families.  As one woman said to me, “When men go to the municipal offices in the morning, they have a woman at home who makes them their breakfast.  Who is going to make mine?”

Because of this complex situation, the government initiative designed to promote gender equity missed its mark.  Although it would have incorporated women into local leadership, it would have made women´s labor burdens greater, and in fact been more of a punishment than a form of political inclusion for women.

Are there solutions? For the immediate future, as I discuss in this journal issue (here), the women in this village rejected the state mandate, in order to make sure they would not be forced to participate on terms that are stacked against them.  However, this victory was at the expense of having a say in important village decisions.  Perhaps, a more effective way to enhance women´s roles in local politics would be to challenge the gender bias of the village government, and create new ways to value women´s traditional labors.  This approach would mean opening up the local definition of what counts as “official” work, in order to value the often invisible labor women do for the good of their families and communities, and allow this work to count towards full, “active” citizenship.

These issues are important to keep in mind for those seeking to promote women´s political participation, and they explain why public policies designed to promote indigenous women´s political participation frequently backfire.


*Data taken from the UNDP publication, “Mujeres y participación política en México” and COTAIPO´S “Directorio de Presidentes Municipales 2013”.



Holly Worthen is professor in the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociologicas at Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, Mexico. Her article, “Indigenous Women and Political Participation: Gendered Labor and Alternative Rights Paradigms” is published in the December issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.


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