From slaves to entrepreneurs: the liberation potential of indigenous women in the Highlands of Ecuador

29 May, 2019

Associate Professor John Hammock offers a personal reflection on his return to Cañar, in the Highlands of Ecuador, nearly 50 years after first visiting to carry out research, and the visible transformation of its society and economy.  

I first visited Ecuador in 1969 as part of a team to research social community development efforts. With my colleague Jeff Ashe, I interviewed indigenous leaders of the country and was shocked that story after story spoke of life for indigenous people on the hacienda as sub-human. Indigenous people would not look up to talk to the bosses; they were punished if they gathered wood or water from the vast hacienda lands for cooking in their chozas, their poor adobe and thatched huts; when I talked to indigenous men on the street they would answer ‘sí mi patroncito’ - ‘yes my lord.’

As for the women, they cooked, cleaned, worked the fields, fetched water and had children – sometimes more than 10 – and made sure they did not walk alone, day or night. Rape of young indigenous women was institutionalised: they were regularly required to spend a month ­living in the convent and working to clean the local church. Children fathered by priests had a special name, were taken in by the indigenous community, but marked for life by their appearance.  The same was true in many haciendas, with the administrators and bosses – ‘patrones’ – freely raping women as part of what they saw as the ‘benefits’ that went with the job.

In 2018, nearly 50 years later, I returned to Cañar for to interview some of the young Cañar leaders of that time and to see first hand change in this one community. Due to a land reform effort that began in 1964, the haciendas had been broken up and land was granted to indigenous families and indigenous cooperatives. I expected to find that the breakup had had a major impact on the lives of indigenous people. But I did not expect to find independent women entrepreneurs on Main Street.

I spoke at length with María Esthela Mainato, for example, who owns a photography shop in Cañar. María started the business with her husband, but he ended up spending more time on the road with his band while María Esthela Mainato ran the business. She became the first indigenous person to join the Cañar business association. But then the mainstay of the business, developing film, collapsed due to mobile phones.  She needed to purchase new equipment to keep up with the times as she moved more into her own photography and video work, but she could not get a loan on her own – she would need the signature of her husband, from whom she was now separated. When he demanded that she add to the loan to provide extra for him, she refused and instead persuaded the Indigenous Savings and Loans Cooperative to make an exception for her. Today, María Esthela Mainato, who only finished high school as an adult, is on the board of a non-profit that gives scholarships to indigenous women to attend university.

María Esthela Mainato is one of about 30 indigenous businesses in Cañar—all of them owned by women.

Bilingual education has been a key factor in this transformation. Through the hacienda period, indigenous people mostly spoke Kichwa. Many barely spoke Spanish, and certainly almost no women (or men) could read or write in any language, let alone Spanish. With the agrarian reform and literacy campaigns, bilingual education in Kichwa was legitimised; indigenous culture was acknowledged,­­ not only opening doors for the indigenous people, but also challenging many mestizos’ belief that they were inferior because they could not speak Spanish. 

In every household I visited in rural Cañar, every child was in school, boys and girls all the way up through high school and in many households into university and even graduate school. This is a sea change, brought about by bilingual education and free education. Education is highly valued in Cañar, and has been a clear avenue for change for the rural population.

The serious economic downturn in Ecuador with banks collapsing and the economy bottoming out in the early 2000s led to the mass migration of Ecuadoreans to the United States and Spain – including indigenous people – from Cañar. As young and middle-aged men left the villages and rural areas, the women – recently liberated from the haciendas – were now able to take more prominent roles.  Men started sending remittances back to their wives and parents, and life was transformed. Over the next 37 years, remittances became the biggest source of money for the rural Cañari people. 

The legal break-up of the hacienda system, the migration of men and the availability of bilingual education all have transformed the lives of Cañari families. For those of us who saw the reality of 50 years ago in the late 60s, this huge change is astounding.

Is there more to do and is further empowerment of indigenous women needed? Absolutely.  But for María Estela who proudly said to me, ‘I am now the owner of my business,’ and for indigenous women who put up with patriarchal slavery for almost 500 years, the last 50 years appear to have been transformative and liberating.

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About the author(s)
Professor John Hammock
Associate Professor John Hammock is the co founder of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) at the Department of International Development and Chair of the first social enterprise launched by Oxford University, sOPHIa Oxford.