Natacha Reyes interprets Ecuador's new laws against spousal abuse and domestic violence to women throughout the country through a model that teaches them how to exercise their legal rights and see themselves as full and active citizens.
The New Idea
Natacha Reyes, a human rights lawyer in Ecuador, is part of the global movement that has succeeded in establishing that violence against women is a violation of their human rights and a legal issue, even when it takes place in the homes: and that governments therefore have a responsibility to provide enforceable protections. She was instrumental in writing Ecuador's first laws to protect women's rights and believes that the necessary legal framework now exists for Ecuadorian women to exercise their rights as private citizens–at least in theory. In the new democracies of Latin America a useful law can remain an abstraction because there are no mechanisms to make it work at the practical level. One distinguishing quality of Natacha's latest work is that it bridges that gap comprehensively.Natacha has devised a method to take the law out to the neighborhoods, give women the tools to make use of it and expand the rule of law in the country. To that end, she has created the Permanent Citizenship School. The name reflects her vision that ultimately human rights are about the meaning of citizenship: that no person whose basic human rights are not respected can truly be a citizen. Natacha concentrates her efforts on women, because they are the most vulnerable and tend to be most ignorant of their rights; and because any expansion of their citizenship moves naturally to their families and thus to society at large.
All over the world women have identified violence as the most pressing social issue for them. In Ecuador, where Natacha estimates that 70 to 75 percent of women experience abuse, the Congress passed a series of laws to protect women's rights in 1995. They specifically establish protection from violence–defined as "physical, psychological or sexual maltreatment"–as a woman's legal right.
However, Ecuadorians do not know what the new laws are, what they mean or how to use them. There is a limited understanding throughout the culture of the concept of legal rights generally. The government provides no mechanisms to educate citizens about the new legislation; the staffs of municipal and judicial offices are also poorly informed, and the Ecuadorian police are not trained to deal with complaints of spousal abuse and domestic violence.
In addition to ignorance, there are significant other barriers for women to overcome in order to use the law to protect themselves. Many lived under Ecuador's military dicatatorship during the 1970s and have seen people punished for standing up to the abuse of power. Many view the police with suspicion and fear their own husbands.
Natacha has long been at work on issues of women's rights, domestic violence and spousal abuse and was a key influence on Ecuador's progressive laws. Because of her well-known expertise in human rights law, the government invited her to be on a committee to draft legislation for the protection of women's rights, and she wrote 21 of the eventual 35 statutes. Even before they were signed into law in 1995, Natacha was planning how to make them effective. Her strategy involves three interrelated elements: direct education, legal advice and other support services for women; training for police and other public officials charged with enforcing laws protecting women from domestic violence; and public education through the media and publications. By focusing on the general public and police she is working to create a more enabling environment for women's self-empowerment. By providing services for women, she supports their efforts directly.
Beginning in Quito, Natacha has created a series of "Permanent Citizenship Schools," which are a layer of women's rights programs she has added to already-existing women's groups and nongovernmental organizations. In workshops and meetings, women learn about the concept of legal rights and how to use the legal system from Natacha and other experts. If someone needs to take the new step of filing a denuncia or lawsuit, the Citizen School is a place to come for information, step-by-step guidance about the process–and a partner and guide.
Natacha has set up the first national police departmental office for the defense of women's rights and instituted training in the handling of domestic violence cases. Commonly at the beginning the policemen are hostile and challenging. With humor and persistence she gains their confidence. She deals with antagonists by training them, and there are signs that men are starting to come along.
The passage of any new law provides an opening to develop public consciousness, and in Ecuador the issue of violence against women became front-page news in 1996 when a cabinet level minister threatened a woman employee with a gun. Ecuador's President Buccaram, who had pressed for passage of the women's rights laws a year earlier, stood behind his minister for a time; but the nation's women demanded his ouster. The military backed the women, and public outrage became so strong that Buccaram was forced to resign. Natacha, who is often interviewed on television and has a regular radio show of her own, used the case as an opportunity to discuss the issues and the law.
With time, the nation's courts will disseminate information about the 1995 laws through decisions that set precedents, and Natacha is watching for appropriate cases to try. She is also setting up courses on violence prevention and citizens' rights for schoolchildren. Natacha anticipates that her idea will spread most quickly from the women in her citizenship schools as they in turn educate their families.
Natacha plans to expand her "Permanent Citizenship School" model into all of Ecuador's nineteen provinces by training a core group of organizers to expand her system of collaborations with nongovernmental organizations, community groups and municipal governments. By 1998 she expects to have schools in five of Ecuador's larger cities and twenty smaller ones. Ecuador's indigenous women, who experience a particularly high level of domestic violence, also joined in the ongoing discussion of women's legal rights through a workshop that Natacha and Ashoka Fellow Carmen Tene, who is Quechua, held in 1996. Entitled "Gender, Identity, and Development," the project brought together 40 women from Ecuador's diverse geographies and cultures to encourage greater women's participation at all social, political and economic levels.
From childhood, Natacha has known that she wanted to dedicate her life to the protection of human and civil rights. Her father suffered violent maltreatment by the Ecuadorian military dictatorship for his political beliefs in the 1970s, when she was nine years old. Another formative experience, says Natacha, was the time she and her husband spent in Chile immediately after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. For seventeen years people there had not participated in public discussions. She and her husband set up courses in high schools and junior colleges where they gave training to a generation of students who had never seen a political debate and had never witnessed voting. Natacha encouraged many women to participate in the democratic process. This experience became a prototype for her citizenship schools.
Natacha has many outstanding professional achievements, as a lawyer, defender, educator and promoter of human and women's rights. These include arguing 370 cases of abuse against women, serving as legal adviser to national and international organizations and appearing at numerous panels and conferences. She serves on many committees and advisory groups and has helped organize national and international fora and workshops on women's issues. She is the founder and leader of several Ecuadorian women's rights organizations and teacher of civil rights law to Ecuadorian police officers. Natacha is a warm and social woman with many friends and four sons.