María del Carmen Tene

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1995
This description of María del Carmen Tene's work was prepared when María del Carmen Tene was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995 .


Carmen Tene, a Quechua from the Ecuadorian Andes, enables indigenous women to use their voices and seek their own representation in society through information centers that search out their collective knowledge and oral traditions.

The New Idea

Working within their oral traditions and focusing on the unthreatening subject of health care, Carmen Tene is helping the indigenous women of Ecuador to become full and equal citizens in their households and their country. They are the descendants of a variety of Indian races whom the Incas relocated in the course of establishing an empire in the fifteenth century. Unlike the Aymara women of the high Andes, they have not had a tradition of meeting together, nor have they experienced the bonding and empowerment that women of other Latin American countries have developed by participating in twentieth-century land reform movements. For these women, coming together to meet in groups was a new pattern, which Carmen Tene saw as a natural setting for them to begin to speak.Carmen's groups have provided a safe place for indigenous women to articulate and collect their cultural memory, a place to integrate traditional solutions and modern problems. Together the women study their own identity, a research usually done, if at all, by academic or citizens' organizations from outside. In order to overcome the male controls that have isolated them within their homes, Carmen has organized the women's centers around traditional healing practices, providing a process where the society's most systemically excluded citizens can empower themselves together. Carmen's work grows out of her concept of citizenship: that it is not possible to participate in the development of civil society unless one possesses a voice and the confidence that it will be heard. As she has put it, "My objective has been since the beginning that women should organize in all fields in the community, at the base and in all the different provinces. The idea is that they can express their thoughts and feelings and that they can take those thoughts and feelings and present them as proposals."

The Problem

The indigenous women among whom Carmen works have become a silent population. Over the course of 500 years of colonial domination, the generally low status of Ecuador's ethnic people–who comprise 45 percent of its numbers–has been intensified for the native women, who are the subjects not only of their colonizers but also of their own husbands, brothers and fathers in a culture of machismo that does not tolerate or value women's participation. Though some research, including that of Ashoka Fellow Maria Eugenia Choque, who works among Aymara women in Bolivia, indicates that indigenous cultures were characterized by more gender equality before the Conquest, modern Latin American customs reinforce discrimination: daughters are valued less than sons, who receive better access to education and economic resources, and family violence is escalating. Carmen estimates that 65 percent of the women have been beaten; often they suffer from poor nutrition and lack basic public health resources such as disease prevention and improved sanitary conditions. The course of modernization has contributed to increasing isolation for such women. Because many men must migrate from their communities to find work, women and children are forced to live on their own in poverty. Their culture is oral; most don't read or write. Whereas women have historically provided an audience for each other, familiar communication patterns have been disrupted. Old ways of running the sheep have been replaced by pickup trucks instead of walking; cold-water faucets mean the women no longer gather at a community well and talk. The silence of indigenous women is a loss to the society as a whole. It is constant evidence of failure to develop adequate democratic processes. Moreover, though their history has robbed them of confidence, they know things and this knowledge is valuable. The traditional medicine, agricultural techniques, clothing and rituals that are rapidly disappearing everywhere in Latin America are being replaced with unsustainable, expensive new customs that often make living conditions worse. Indigenous women have traditionally maintained and transmitted practical wisdoms such as where and how to terrace, plant and harvest; how to treat diseases; and how to weave clothing that will last and keep people who live at high altitudes warm. If remembered, what they know can mean the difference between being poor and being destitute in changing market economies. Like other countries, Ecuador faces challenging problems that sharply affect the lives of indigenous women and their families. More than 50 percent of the students drop out of the public schools before they finish the sixth grade. The environment has been damaged by resource extraction, including shrimp aquaculture that has stripped the coastline. A prolonged drought in the country has left Carmen's home village of Loja without rain for three years. Widespread corruption further wastes resources and erodes citizens' confidence in their country.

The Strategy

Carmen's strategy has three major dimensions. She creates groups to empower women; she explores health as the organizing theme for the groups; and she develops mechanisms to institutionalize the groups in centers throughout Ecuador that can be widely replicated in other parts of Latin America and the world.The centers are safe, private places where women can share their knowledge informally while trained staff people record what they know about traditional agriculture, methods of birth control and healing, art, or astronomy. The groups provide a natural setting for women also to discuss their private concerns. A picture of Carmen in 1996 shows her down on the ground in an indigenous village, alongside her husband, building cooking fires with the local men. The two work together to bring men and women into joint cooking projects and to organize community conversations about valuing daughters as much as sons and reflecting frankly on child-rearing methods, including spanking. As women develop enough self-esteem and confidence to feel comfortable participating in public, Carmen helps them get involved in their children's education. She works with school districts to allow the women to teach cooking and traditional crafts. Women also learn how to improve sanitary conditions in their homes and where to seek help against domestic violence. Over time, Carmen teaches them about their rights and how to use the legal and political systems. A leader in the most respected nongovernmental organization in the social sector in Ecuador, who nominated Carmen to the Ashoka fellowship, has observed that in the areas where she has been organizing there is increased evidence of women participating in children's schools and of healthier families. "Health," says Carmen, "is the key to everything," and she has used it as her way into the communities, where her tactic has been to use the universal interest in bettering medical services to neutralize men's objections to their wives meeting outside the home. As Carmen explains, if an international agency had come to hold a meeting about traditional knowledge, the men would have shut the door. But the villages have very little modern health care or access to doctors, so the men want the women to know how to stop bleeding, set an arm or deal with toothaches or cuts; and Carmen was an insider who, shaman-like, captured attention, trust and a following through her focus on healing. Building on her own knowledge of medicinal herbs and traditional practices, she is reactivating traditional health care. She also teaches the women how to promote economic health and independence through micro-enterprises that earn money and benefit everyone in the group: they sell organic produce and traditional medicinal plants, hand-made clothes and jewelry in shops and outdoor markets all over Ecuador. An important part of her strategy is to encourage the spread of her idea and techniques. By early 1997 her work had grown to five centers that provide the services of interviewing, recording, filing and training women how to create new centers in other communities. They are libraries of indigenous resources that Carmen is connecting with modern technology–phones, faxes, computers. She organizes assemblies and workshops throughout the country to reintroduce pride and respect for indigenous culture. With Ashoka Fellow Natacha Reyes, Carmen conducted a national workshop in 1996 entitled "Gender, Identity and Development," which brought together 40 indigenous women and encouraged their participation in civil society. Since Natacha, a lawyer who has contributed to Ecuador's new laws against domestic violence, is European in appearance, Carmen's presence with her provided an entree to inform women in the indigenous community of their legal rights and resources for dealing with abuse. As Carmen's reputation spreads, leaders in areas affected by malnutrition, pollution, domestic violence, migration and cultural loss have asked her to organize indigenous women in their communities.

The Person

Carmen is proud of her indigenous heritage. Before her college work, she graduated from indigenous schools in her southern Ecuador hometown of Loja, which was located at the northernmost part of the Inca empire and the site of still-functioning terraces and water systems from the Inca days. Carmen was greatly influenced by a yachac, or indigenous medicine man, who taught her to prevent and cure diseases using native plants and traditional medicines. Her knowledge brought her into contact with indigenous women, contacts that have shaped her ideas and strategy for improving their lot. Her ideas and talents have found international resonance. Carmen was a principal organizer of the Conference of Latin American Indigenous Women, one of the events preparatory to the United Nations Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. She helped to write the position of Latin American indigenous women, met with other representatives of indigenous women from around the world, and presented proposals on behalf of indigenous women at the Conference itself.