Women in Paraguay
Women in Paraguay
According to traditional thought, women have played a more critical role in the history of Paraguay than in other Latin American states—so much so, in fact, that women have assumed the status of patriotic icons. School textbooks portray women as the principal defenders of the nation, as the bravest of the brave in repulsing those who would see Paraguay dismembered and broken. While this image constitutes a historiographical oddity, in reality women have shaped the course of events in Paraguay in some unusual ways.
The Guaraní, the dominant ethnic group in the Paraguayan region during the pre-Columbian era, set the basic pattern. Semisedentary agriculturalists, they reserved the bulk of labor in the fields for female members of various clans. While men dedicated themselves to hunting and fishing, Guaraní women cultivated maize, beans, manioc root, tobacco, squashes, peanuts, and cotton (also weaving the latter into clothing). They were largely responsible for child-rearing as well.
The arrival of the Spaniards in 1537 did not much affect the lives of Paraguay's women. The Spaniards, seeking a quick route to the silver of Peru, had ascended the Paraguay River carrying only the bare necessities, and no European women accompanied them. Stranded among the Guaraní, they soon took up with Indian women. Regarding the newcomers as members of their extended kin group, the women labored for them just as they had labored for their own men. They bore mestizo children, taught them Guaraní, and helped them forge a colonial order that was only partly Spanish. The first governor, Domingo Martínez de Irala, took several Guaraní wives and legitimized their offspring.
Very few immigrants entered Paraguay during the colonial period. This fact alone assured that the early pattern of indigenous-white relations would retain its influence into the late 1700s. Women still did most of the farm work, though now the earlier Guaraní-based kinship structures had been supplanted by the encomienda. The women still raised children who were monolingual in the Guaraní tongue and who also thought more like Guaraní than like Spaniards, whatever their surnames might happen to be. This socialization process later provided the basis for a fervent nationalism among many Paraguayans, who viewed themselves as being decidedly different from other Latin Americans. National independence, which came in 1811, thus reflected not just political realities but also cultural factors.
Paraguayan women, having prepared the social environment for a sense of cultural separateness, now helped shape the new nation. The dictator Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814–1840) forbade marriages between Paraguayans and Spaniards. This reinforced traditional structures governing the role of women while, at the same time, undercutting the influence of such formal, Spanish-based institutions as legally sanctioned marriage and the church. Informal liaisons remained the rule, as did long hours in the field for women. Those hours likely increased during the 1850s and 1860s, when the governments of Carlos Antonio López (1841–1862) and Francisco Solano López (1862–1870) expanded the state military establishment, drafted thousands of men, and left women and children to produce a good portion of the foodstuffs.
Paraguayan women played a significant role in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870). The Paraguayan War added still further burdens. With all of the men at the front, Paraguayan women, though especially rural women of the lower classes, supported almost the entire war economy. They donated their jewelry and cash. They worked in hospitals. As in the past, women provided most of the agricultural labor, yet they took on new tasks like harnessing oxen and butchering cattle. As the war turned against Paraguay, women volunteered for military service. It is unclear if many actually fought, though observers at the 1869 battle of Acosta Ñu reported that the Paraguayan defenders included a considerable number. In that same year, Solano López evacuated the central district and retreated to the northeast, taking with him his now meager army, his Irish mistress, and a multitude of poor women who, malnourished and diseased, nonetheless followed López to the end. Despite their critical role in the survival of Paraguay during the War of the Triple Alliance, the status of women did not change significantly. However, for many women, the experience of war engendered a broad-based sense of nationalism and citizenship.
The Paraguayan defeat in 1870 brought new challenges. Brazilian troops occupied Paraguay for six years. With perhaps half the country's population having perished in the conflict, women were said to outnumber men four or five to one. It took a generation to reestablish an even ratio between the sexes. Throughout this time women struggled as never before to eke out a living on the land and in the towns. Foreign visitors witnessed the toils of female porters, carters, street sweepers, and farm workers. Later writers claimed that this era brought a matriarchal order to Paraguayan society, though this has never been proven conclusively.
The same period did bring some significant changes. In 1869, the first national school for girls was founded in Asunción. Educational opportunities in the capital and elsewhere afforded women career possibilities undreamt of previously. The full ramifications of this change became clear only in the 1900s, when women joined the ranks of recognized educators, poets, and artists.
In the twentieth century, women often chose migration as a strategy to find better livelihoods. In the first half of the century, emigrants followed agricultural cycles, arriving at yerba-maté plantations on the eastern frontier for harvest. Later, migration followed rural-to-urban and urban-to-urban patterns. Instead of eking out an existence in agriculture or crafts, many women have sought contract and salaried positions in the capital, Asunción. Others still find domestic work abroad, especially in Buenos Aires. Although this employment has created opportunities, some women find themselves vulnerable to exploitation.
The twentieth century has not, however, seen a progressive expansion of political influence for Paraguayan women. The various dictatorial regimes as well as the Chaco War with Bolivia (1932–1935) and the 1947 Civil War have tended to infuse the political culture of the country with a military spirit that manifestly has limited the participation of women. Women might be scholars, doctors, lawyers, and administrators, but political offices were usually beyond their reach. Only in 1961 did women receive the right to vote, and although some female deputies were elected in the 1960s and 1970s, a full thirty years passed before a Paraguayan president named a woman as minister. Various women's groups and feminist organizations came into being in the 1980s, but overall, as compared with all of its neighbors, Paraguay still has far to go in advancing the interests of its women.
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Marta FernÁndez Whigham