Gladys, a story of leadership and local governance

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

This blog tells the story of Gladys Ybaguari, an indigenous Tacana woman born in Tumupasa, a community near La Paz in Bolivia 43 years ago. She was President of the Indigenous Council of Tacana Women (CIMTA) for 4 years until 2019. 

During the devastating floods that hit Bolivia in 2014 Gladys was Vice President of CIMTA and together with Ruth Chuqui Oliver, who was then the President, took on the responsibility of visiting the worst affected communities to provide assistance and assess their needs. They shared the information gathered with the local municipality and development and relief organisations who were able to provide targeted support that met the needs of communities. 

Ruth and Gladys 

As part of the general commission of the Indigenous Council of the Tacana people (CIPTA) Gladys and Ruth visited many flood affected communities, including ten on the banks of the overflowing Beni River. The women share how in some of the communities they accessed people were found sheltering in trees, together with some of their smaller animals, as no dry land remained. These people had to be rescued by boat by the indigenous people’s organization.

Devastating floods become a catalyst for change 

According to Gladys the 2014 flood marked an important milestone for the Tacana people as they began to take on a different approach to risk management. They did for example include the concept in their “Life Plan”, a territorial management plan created by the local indigenous people to set out their vision and plans for managing the territory they live in, and the resources present. 

Through their work with development organizations Christian Aid and Practical Action, CIMTA was strengthened as a women’s parent organization. They built better connections with their communities, even with those that due to distances, had not been accessible before the flood. Sharing and teaching of traditional skills relevant to the local culture like weaving and sewing were used to connect with communities. Once relationships were established the participation of women in community planning, disaster recovery, and advocacy was promoted and women took on leadership roles. 

As a result of this work, today nine women act as local advocates for resilience building. They work with local communities supporting women in the organization and administration of water and energy committees, promoting the use of solar ovens, agroforestry, and natural medicine in adapting and building resilience to natural hazards like floods. 

Understanding of flood effects enable better response and preparation 

Between 2015 and 2019, as president of CIMTA Gladys also helped to train women and men in 20 communities to collect flood data in their territories. 

The purpose of this data collection is to complement the existing early warning system, the probability of a flood induced emergency is communicated to the communities who can take action. This participatory method, where women play important roles, also allows effective information gathering on flood damages and needs within the communities which allow more targeted, and appropriate, response from relevant authorities and relief organizations. The experience from this years’ floods showcase the fruit of this work. Community members knew the floods were coming, and how to respond, hence losses and damages were reduced. 

Through this work, its collaborative nature, and the mutually empowering relationships Gladys built with women in the communities she worked with, her role and capacity as a leader was strengthened, as was the capacity of CIMTA, CIPTA, and the Tacana people more broadly. 

Supporting existing leaders to empower local women

Through the projects supported by Christian Aid and implemented by Practical Action we worked closely with, and supported, Gladys who was already recognized locally as an authority in the field. By supporting existing leaders and enabling the construction of new collaborative leaderships oriented to the needs and capacities of the women the representation of women’s perspectives on issues like gender roles, participatory community planning, and technologies based on alternative energy was enabled. 

After 5 years as President, with a daughter who herself has trained as a leader, and a granddaughter who was beginning to walk, Gladys left the public space. She described feeling joy for the achievements during her presidency, but sadness as being outside the Board of Directors she will not have the same access to communities with which she was in contact those four years.

Gladys’ legacy 

It is difficult to be a leader when you are an indigenous woman. As such you are expected to fulfil various gendered roles linked to cultural tradition and social control. Gladys is an example showing that it’s still possible. The young leaders following her are testimony to the impact and heritage of this woman who served two terms as president of the Council of Tacana Indigenous Women. These women, filled with youthful creativity, take on their new roles inspired by Gladys’ work.

This blog is adapted from a story originally published by Practical Action Bolivia on 4 April 2020. You can read the original story, in Spanish, here

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