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Bolivian woman activist wins World Methodist Peace Award

A 37-YEAR-OLD Bolivian household worker-turned-activist is the recipient of the 2003 World Methodist Peace Award.

Ms Casimira Rodriguez Romero was recognised in a ceremony at La Reforma Methodist Church in La Paz, Bolivia, on Nov 20, 2003. His Eminence Sunday Mbang, Chairman of the World Methodist Council (WMC), presented the award, which is given annually by the council to an individual or group that has made significant contributions to peace and reconciliation.

Bishop Carlos Intipampa of the Methodist Church of Bolivia nominated Ms Rodriguez for her efforts for peace, reconciliation and justice in the face of centuries of oppression.

Born into a poor Quechua family near Cochabamba, Ms Rodriguez began the hard life of a domestic worker when she was just 13. “That was a very negative experience,” she said in an interview last July. “I had to serve more than 15 people, and I was in charge of so many things.”

The only girl in a family which lived in poverty, she was treated as a servant, working her first two years without pay. She was also subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse.

She described moments when she felt that life was meaningless because she had been locked up in a very small world. But when she met the Lord, her life began to be filled with hope and faith.

According to the Rev Dr George Freeman, General Secretary of the WMC, she began to realise that God was with the poor, denouncing injustice and healing the sick.

She became a member of the Emmanuel Methodist Church congregation in Cochabamba which continues to be an important part of her life.

When she was still a teenager, she formed a support group with fellow workers, and they began to seek legal rights for themselves and other workers. In 1986, she was elected to head conflict resolution at the national Household Workers Congress, and a decade later she became chief executive of the congress.

The experience of household workers had always been tied to the treatment they received from employers.

“In my case, many wounds were left due to exploitation and discrimination towards household workers,” she said. “The lack of courage to fight back and not be able to speak up was so frequent that I started thinking that all this was normal.”

Moving to La Paz, she continued to work part-time in households while advocating for human rights. A major victory occurred in 2000, when Bolivia’s Senate passed legislation supporting rights of just salary compensation and legal rights for household workers. Churches and human rights groups joined the intensive campaign for that legislation, which culminated in her public presentation of 15,000 signatures in support of some 114,000 household workers.

After the lower House of the Bolivian Congress passed the legislation, the law for salaried household workers became effective last April.

“We finally have rights protected by the law, and that gives my fellow workers the courage to struggle for the dignity that we didn’t have before,” said Ms Rodriguez, who also was elected chief executive of the Confederation of Household Workers of Latin America and the Caribbean in 2001. “Now they are proud of what they do for a living.”

Throughout her fight for justice, Ms Rodriguez, a Methodist, said she has often turned to God for guidance. – United Methodist News Service.

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.