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Inequality has a color.


Does being black in Uruguay mean you will experience difficulties? If your skin color is different from that of the majority of the population, will you be subject to discrimination? Unfortunately, the answer to both of these questions seems to be yes. Uruguayans of African descent still have the lowest levels of education, employment, anal housing, and the situation is worse among women. The Department of Afro-Descendent Women, part of Uruguay's Ministry of Social Development, and Mundo Afro, a social organization, are two groups working against racism and discrimination and in favor of equal opportunities and respect for the human rights of Afro-descendent people.

Until recently, studies done on the socio-economic situation and processes of exclusion in Uruguay have left race almost completely out of the picture. But this is beginning to change. The September 2011 census began to collect more information on race in order to paint a better picture of what is happening in the country and to support policies that are in step with that reality. The change is a particularly important achievement for the Afro-descendent population, which is the most numerous racial minority in Uruguay. According to the 2008 National Household Survey, 10.6% of the Uruguayan population is black. They have lower levels of schooling: 47.4% have a primary school education or less, and only 7.1% get to college (in a country where university education is free). They are also more likely to be poor: 39.6% of Uruguayan blacks live in poor households (a rate 20% higher than for the rest of the population), and more than 55% of Afro-descendent children live in poverty.

The demographic profile of Uruguayan citizens of African descent is different from the rest of the population in other ways as well. They have a higher percentage of young people, the highest fertility rate, and the lowest life expectancy at birth. Afro-descendent women begin having children earlier and have more children on average than non-Afro-descendent women. According to the Gender Information System of the National Institute of Women, in 2010, 37% of Afro-descendent women lived in households whose income was below the poverty line, and 3% were experiencing extreme poverty. For non-Afro-descendent women the percentages living in poverty and extreme poverty were around 16.6% and 1% respectively.

In a context of low unemployment and high economic activity rates, Uruguayan women are still at a disadvantage to men, and this situation is more pronounced for Afro-descendent women. They experience more discrimination, which makes it harder for them to get a job, receive training, and earn their own income, especially if they are young. Among Afro-descendent women who are working, 41.4% are working in unskilled jobs. One out of every five Afro-descendent women works in domestic service (21.5%).

Hard Cycle to Break

The current socio-demographic situation and the inequalities that Afro-descendent people face today in Uruguay have their roots in a history of racism. Discrimination has persisted over the years, mutating in various ways. Today's higher rates of unemployment combine with higher birth rates to feed a cycle of poverty that is difficult to break.

That's why the work of the Department of Afro-Descendent Women at the Ministry of Social Development is so important. In addition to creating policies to combat racism and discrimination, the Department is working hard to get people involved in this issue. The Department was created in 2005 because of the need to formulate policies for women of African descent. "Afro-descendent women experience gender discrimination and ethnic/racial discrimination," says Dr. Alicia Esquivel, the Department's Director. "If we don't address both of these aspects, the women will probably continue to find themselves in situations of exclusion and marginality."

Afro-descendent women between the ages of 14 and 24 have the highest rate of unemployment in the country; one out of three active women in this age group is not able to find a job. "These women are a population that must be taken into account, because they are young and they are looking for work, but they are not finding it, and they arenot in school, either. What is left for girls of this age to do? Afro-descendent women have a hard rime finding jobs because of stereotypes that are the result of racial discrimination. In this situation, if an Afro-descendent woman and a non-Afro-descendant woman are both applying for a job, they will give the job to the non-Afro-descendent," Esquivel says.

Empowering Women and Raising Awareness

The Department of Afro-Descendent Women is working in two major areas. The first area is the empowerment of Afro-descendent women as citizens with rights. Esquivel explains that the goal is to help "Afro-descendent women who don't feel like full citizens to feel complete sovereignty over their own lives just like other women in our country. But we also want them to understand that they have specific rights as victims of racism. Unfortunately, they are in a position where they have to fight for their rights," Esquivel says. She emphasizes the importance of having a well-developed organization with human resources and a budget of its own to focus on this group of people and ensure that inequity and inequality do not persist.

The Department is currently conducting a pilot program with domestic servants. The program helps women who want to continue working in domestic service to know their rights and develop more skills. It also helps women who want to change jobs to find a "way out" through training.

The second major area of work for the Department is raising awareness in society about matters of ethnicity and race--"to [help people] put on different lenses and begin to see the racist behavior and discriminatory attitudes that exist," says Esquivel. "We do awareness-raising campaigns and we train public and private decision-makers who work in human resources. We also have campaigns to raise awareness among the population in general," she adds. In addition to this work, the Department advocates for the inclusion of information about ethnicity and race in government surveys, as occurred in the September 2011 census.

Esquivel points out that racism--like sexism--is ah everyday matter. "There is a sexist and a racist vocabulary that we allow and consider normal. Women of African descent, and women in general, experience stereotyping every single day," she says. "We need to deconstruct something that has been built over false premises in order to create a new society in which we all accept diversity and multiculturality," she concludes.

Uruguay is also working to implement the recommendations of the United Nations Committee for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination. That includes greater access to the justice system, awareness-raising for police officers and judges, the criminalization of racist acts, and the incorporation of ethnic and racial information into state records.


Mundo Afro

As for Mundo Afro, it has been fighting against racism and for racial equality for 23 years. It is currently working at the national level as well as through a network of eleven Regional Offices for Racial Equity. The organization's work includes cultural programs, programs for youth and women, and training. The latter is done through the Higher Institute of Training for People of African Descent (Instituto Superior de Formacion Afro). "Through the Institute, we train people in areas that formal education doesn't cover: the history of African civilizations and of people of African descent in Uruguay, how people were brought over as slaves, how they were treated, the abolition of slavery, the participation of people of African descent in the Uruguayan revolution, their current situation, and public policies. This training is aimed at Afro-descendent activists and to the public at large, especially to students," explains Claudia de los Santos, the Director of Mundo Alto.

One great achievement has been the inclusion of the Afro-descendent manual--with a variety of historic and current information--into the portable computers for primary and secondary education (Plan Ceibal). Mundo Afro also has ah educational museum that is visited by students and other groups. "Often, racist attitudes and discrimination start with the family. People need to be informed in order to become aware. That's why it's important that we all learn about our history," she says.

According to De los Santos, several acts of racism occurred in Montevideo and other places in 2011, which happened to be the UN International Year of People of African Descent. Mundo Afro's legal department (called SOS Racismo) received a number of these kinds of reports from adult men and women last year. They believe there will be many more reports if young people begin making calls. Currently, that is not happening because young people do not know their rights. "Afro-descendent people suffer from racism but they just let it pass," says De los Santos. "But I think everything should be reported, the small things and the big things, because if not, the problem will continue to grow. We have to teach our young people and children to denounce these things. We have to teach them that they don't have to let people insult them because of the color of their skin," De los Santos says.

Claudia De los Santos believes that more organizations should emerge to bring Afro-descendent peoples together and go beyond cultural aspects to fight racism and promote human rights. Meanwhile, Mundo Afro does not have a priority theme; rather, it seeks to promote all of their rights. "We are a group of people that has been suffering for more than 500 years. So we are fighting for housing, health, jobs, education, and equality. These are our rights," she says.

Loreno Castellano is a freelance journalist from Uruguay. ----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Castellano, Lorena
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:3URUG
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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