"I am in politics because I want certain things to happen and others to not. Based on this, I will see who I join up with, who I talk to; and also who I won’t join up with and who I won’t talk to. If I begin to think about whose photo will be taken or who will talk to the cameras and I fight over that, then I betray the causes and I am lost — even worse, the causes are lost.” - Martha Roldós
iKNOW Politics: You come from a family of politicians. How has this background impacted your participation in politics?
My father, Jaime Roldós Aguilera, who was president of Ecuador [1979-1981] died with my mother in 1981. Their plane crashed in circumstances that haven´t been fully explained. One of my mother’s brothers was also president of Ecuador, Abdalá Bucarám [1996-1997]. I was part of the opposition. My ex-husband is the nephew of Omar Torrijos, former president of Panama.
Even though I was on the sidelines of active politics, I was always interested. I studied economics, international politics and sociology. I always read and followed politics in the country. My father’s brother, León Roldós, was socialist and became vice president of Ecuador [1981-1984]. He founded a movement called the Red Ética y Democracia [Ethics and Democracy Network], that I am now a member of. Though I participated in university politics, I recently entered national politics with the 2006 elections. That year I was elected as a deputy to Congress, along with the government of President Rafael Correa [inaugurated in January 2007].
I was a deputy for six months and later resigned in order to run as a candidate for the Constituent Assembly. This was part of a project that we were promoting from the Ethics and Democracy Network. It was the aspiration of social movements, progressive political movements and many citizens to have a Constituent Assembly. I was elected as a member of the Assembly that functioned from November 2007 to July 2008. Following the approval of the new Constitution , a transitional regime began and instated a Legislative Supervising Commission [Oct. 2008 - Feb. 2009] where some of us assembly members continue in office, legislating and supervising.
I have always been center-left; I think always going increasingly more toward the left, with a profound interest in environmental issues and gender issues. For me, environmental issues are vital; the defense of the environment is the defense of life. This is one of the most important causes of the social and indigenous movements. It is one area in politics that I greatly identify myself with.
iKNOW Politics: In recent years Ecuador has experienced accelerated changes. What progress do you think has been made in women’s agenda, particularly in relation to women’s participation in politics?
I think that in the last few years in Ecuador we have advanced. We have been seeking equality under law, but the most important thing is that we have advanced in practice. The time we have had the most female participation has been precisely in the Constituent Assembly. Many lists headed by women were presented. This implied a qualitative change. We achieved not only equality but also alternation in the lists because previously on a list of 18, for example, they would put the nine women at the end.
Now men and women have to alternate. In fact, the Constituent Assembly got close to 40 percent women. When the Legislative Supervising Commission was elected, some of us opposed reducing the number of assembly members because we thought it would be difficult to maintain the balance among provinces, political groups and gender. As is common, the gender ratio was sacrificed. However, the presence of women does not necessarily imply an advance in women’s agenda.
Those who most oppose women’s agenda, in terms of sexual and reproductive health, were other women from right wing parties. They had a program; I would say a menu, equivalent to what we see in other countries in Latin America that was inspired in the Vatican’s position, in certain protestant churches and the government of George Bush [former United States president, 2001-2009]. Their stance opposed international agencies such as the United Nations Development Program [UNDP], which was one of the principal resources for many assembly members in issues of women and gender.
iKNOW Politics: Numerous experts and studies claim that quotas are not enough. Other affirmative action initiatives in favor of women have similarly proven insufficient and would need to be accompanied by some sort of social norm structure. Based on your experience, what strategies do you think should be implemented to promote structural changes in this area?
Indeed, quotas in candidacies are not enough. In fact, the greatest achievement we’ve had was getting the lists to alternate. We need to get more women designated and into Congress. I think that there should be an internal norm within political parties obligating them to take women’s candidacies seriously. In many cases candidacies are offered to beauty queens as a way to attract votes. In order for the quota to be effective, parties must have channels allowing the participation of women members.
In this way we could prevent female candidacies from going to famous or well-known women who are unrelated to the party. However, this leads to a very interesting point. Women’s political participation is not reduced to parties and elections. There are other ways to participate, such as what I do, for example, by associating myself with groups that are against the mining law.
A large number of leaders of community defenses are women, and women are the ones that must be given more space. I think that this is interesting. When you go to the community protests — for food sovereignty, for water, against mining — this is where you find more women with a very high level of commitment and decision. Many fellow women have been criminalized, such as Lina Solano, for fighting against mining, or Esther Landeta, who received death threats from hit men. It is interesting to see how in these other areas of politics women have gained so much territory and are usually the most persecuted.
iKNOW Politics: And in relation to society, what strategies do you think are most effective to counteract machista and patriarchal mentalities that delegitimize women’s call for equality?
I think that there should be a communication strategy to counteract the machista ideas that have spread across society. But also those of us women who are in politics have to empower ourselves in our role and not allow ourselves to be intimidated. The most common way of intimidating a woman is to threaten to reveal elements of her personal life, issues that would be completely irrelevant in a man’s life.
It’s time for us women in politics to begin to say, ‘Yes, and?’ I knew of a woman from a right wing party that stopped being part of the opposition the moment that the president [Rafael Correa] said on a radio station that she had a questionable reputation. I do not agree with any of that woman’s positions, but no one has the right to attack her like that. We women do not question anyone’s reputation, nor do we allude to the sexual partners that men in politics have had. One of the first things that would have to be done is to impose strong sanctions on these campaigns across the board. These are unacceptable forms of discrimination.
It is very difficult when a woman’s children hear these things; it is not easy for most women. However, you have to teach your children to say, “So? My private life is my private life.” People have to begin to respect the private life of women in politics; there is no reason for it to be the object of mockery or political debate. We should enforce the norms. It should be considered a form of harassment or discrimination, regardless of where it comes from. Lastly, I think it the issue of financing for women’s campaign is very important. It is much more difficult for women to get financing for their campaigns than men. It gets complicated and it becomes a personal issue. We should begin to think more about this issue.
iKNOW Politics: The Ecuadorian Association of Women in Municipal Government [AMUME] has created a bill on harassment and violence against women involved in politics. What do you think about this?
I am familiar with the initiative. Margarita Carranco, president of AMUME presented it to me. Perhaps in congressional areas this violence and harassment happens less since we are more in the limelight. It happens more often in municipal areas, overall in town councils. I have a woman friend, who is a councilor from my political movement, who has been intimidated in Santo Domingo following the accusations of corruption that she presented against the mayor. So threats form part of the political game and in small communities, it is a physical threat. In the case of women this is even graver since this physical threat can hint at other kinds of aggressions, such as sexual aggressions, improper comments or harassment.
iKNOW Politics: Indigenous communities have had an important role in the region and Ecuador is one of the most representative countries in this respect. How do you see the situation of indigenous Ecuadorian women in politics? What projections do you see for the future?
There are Ecuadorian indigenous women in politics, such as Mónica Chuji, who represents not only indigenous women but women in general and who forcefully defends issues related to sexual and reproductive health. I remember the noticeable participation of women in social movements in Chimborazo. For example, Cucuri insisted that when the rights of native peoples were recognized, they must also be made to respect the rights of women.
Here in Ecuador, we have a growing, very marked participation, starting with Nina Pacari, then with Lourdes Vivan, Dolores Cacuango, Blanca Chancoso and many others whose names escape me. This progress must be encouraged. Many fellow women are claiming greater space in politics in their communities and society. This space must be respected by all men and women.
iKNOW Politics: What challenges do you feel having to cope in a predominantly male environment such as politics? How do you overcome these challenges?
When I entered Congress, there were six of us legislators from the Ethics and Democracy Network and they decided to name me head of the party caucus. This ended up being very uncomfortable for some of the other caucus leaders. One of them even refused to address me, instead addressing his male colleagues each time he had to negotiate something. They said, “no, the one in charge of that is Martha, you have to talk to Martha,” but he wouldn’t do it because we were at an impasse on other issues.
Finally, his caucus decided to change its leader and chose someone else who was able to talk to me. I think women have to make themselves be respected. At the beginning it’s a lot of work, you arrive shy and a little scared. One of the things that you learn when in politics is that you must not be scared of them calling you a witch. A woman can be a witch to those who are abusive and be generous, but have all her heart, mind and hands open for the causes of those who need them.
iKNOW Politics: What strategies would you recommend in order to form alliances with men in office on issues of gender equality?
I work very well with men, the majority of them. The first thing is to have a good sense of humor, know how to converse and be frank, put the cards on the table: what do I want, what do you want. As long as you don’t beat around the bush, you will be able to foster the alliances you need or want. If you beat around the bush, you’re probably hiding that you don’t want that person to be one of your allies. I think that in this era, time is short and causes are urgent. We have to go straight to the point with friendship and a sense of humor. For me this is the most important thing.
At first, others can look down on a woman, but everyone ends up recognizing her work ability when she arrives before others, she knows more than others and leaves after them. Of course this is difficult and unfair, because a woman should be able to be equal and not have to work harder, but at first it is always a question of doing much more. This has always been the role of women: to do much more. It is a matter of demonstrating that you are equally or more prepared and trained than any man.
iKNOW Politics: In your political career, you have had the opportunity to work in alliances and networks. What has this meant for you?
I have participated in networks on current affairs and I have worked very well both in women’s groups and with environmentalists on various issues. The fundamental aspect of making these alliances work is for a woman to demonstrate her commitment to a common cause. If so, she can promote or lead with no problem. I believe struggles for protagonism are harmful. It’s important to build leadership without looking for it.
These days there are many leadership programs and I think that these encourage political climbing. Many of these programs lack real content, they don’t talk about the causes that we have to defend but rather the places that we have to be. It is possible to go very high without much purpose, and in the end the “new leaders” are going to do the same that the others did. If you assume a cause and pursue it passionately, with dedication, you will probably end up leading. I don’t like to lead certain causes. If someone can do it better than me, I do not have a problem giving them the space to do it. Sometimes, when you feel fully committed to a cause, you realize that few people are willing to do what you are.
That is the leadership that is worthwhile; the leadership based on really embracing a cause rather than on wanting to put your name above everyone else’s. I am in politics because I want certain things to happen and others to not. Based on this, I will see who I join up with, who I talk to; and also who I won’t join up with and who I won’t talk to. If I begin to think about whose photo will be taken or who will talk to the cameras and I fight over that, then I betray the causes and I am lost — even worse, the causes are lost.
iKNOW Politics: What advice would you give to young women, not only in Ecuador but in the region, who are interested in participating in politics but who think it is inaccessible?
It may sound funny, but many will think of my case as the child who wants to be a trapeze artist because her whole family did it. Another is the case of the child that comes home from the circus and says she wants to be in the circus, too. However, I know many women that have a prominent role in politics without having a family history in politics.
In fact, I rejected politics for a long time and entered not because of my last name, but because I wanted to fight for certain causes, because I had a program that I wanted to defend. And that was over twenty years after my parents’ death. When you go into something it’s because you have a passion for what you do.
You go finding your path. My recommendation to anyone, not only for those who enter in politics, is to do what you want in life and to find what makes you passionate. I would not be able to tolerate people that I have to tolerate or fight with people that I have to fight if it weren’t for my passion, if I didn’t have certain things that I passionately defend. Without these, I would be better off at home taking care of flowers.
iKNOW Politics: Do you have any final comments?
I have realized that we do not know whether we will be alive or dead the following day. That is a life lesson. This is why I always try to do the best with what I have, in the time that I have. I do not know where I will be in a few months, probably still in politics, I have a lot of things that I want to fight for, I have a country that I love deeply. I have lived in many areas with very good people.
In general, latinos are very good people, people that you love, that you commit to intimately. However, they do not always protest as they should, which frustrates me. I remember when I talked to some very exploited workers from the banana plantations, one told me that a toxic substance had fallen on him and he lost his vision in one eye and all of his hair. And with utmost sincerity he said: “well, it seems that I had bad luck and my eye was ripe.” That is not bad luck, I told him, “you have been exploited, they have made you use a toxic substance that is internationally prohibited, nobody warned you.”
That kind of injustice gives you the fuel to keep fighting. In my life, I have done many things. I have been a student and a professor, I have done surveys and part of my daughter’s childhood I was only a housewife. You can always have different stages in life; there is a path that has brought me here and that will probably keep taking me further. I invite people who want to fight for causes to participate in politics. As for those who just want to see their name on the marquee, it is better to dedicate yourself to show business.