“I don’t know where I would be without the Casa.” These are the words Maria* shared with her prison spouse support group, which meets weekly in a little room on the upper floor of the Casa de la Amistad in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This group is a safe place where the women share their struggles as mothers, wives and family providers while their husbands are in prison. One of the recurring frustrations expressed is the lack of opportunity Indigenous women in Bolivia continue to face.

The prison spouse support group meets weekly at Casa de la Amistad in Cochabamba, Bolivia. She Matters 4 Canada spokesperson Cheryl Bear (back row, second from right) visited the group this past June.

Maria has a history and close connection to the Casa.  As a teenager, she was a “Casa kid”, one of the 140 children who receive emotional, physical, educational and spiritual support while living in prison with their parent. The staff at Casa helped her to complete her high school education and gave her a safe place to be after school when she was not in the prison with her mother.

Now Maria is a young mother herself. While her husband has been in prison for drug trafficking-related offenses, she has struggled to provide for children on her own. She is challenged just to make ends meet from the income she earns selling food at the market. Tears flow down her face as she talks about the hope that the Casa has provided to her and now her children. “It has saved our lives,” she says with gratitude for the hot meals, tutoring support, medical care and spiritual care her kids receive. “I always hope they will have a better future.”

Indigenous people make up approximately 60% of the population in Bolivia. Historically, they have faced discrimination with limited access to education and work opportunities. Until recent years, their rights have not been adequately represented in the government. However, many of the women in the group expressed that while there have been some improvements, there is still a long way to go for real and lasting change to be felt in Indigenous communities.

Hearing the stories of Maria and the other women in the group, it is inevitable that comparisons are made with the situation of Indigenous women in our own country. As expressed by singer-songwriter and She Matters 4 Canada spokesperson Cheryl Bear, being an Indigenous woman in Canada is to be invisible. “Our society tells you that your life isn’t worth anything. You are not as valuable as everyone else.”

Despite the obstacles, the women in the support group at the Casa are making plans to help ensure their children will have a different future. With great excitement they reveal that sewing machines are being brought in the following week. Soon the group will be able to receive training in sewing and tailoring, which will lead to the creation of small businesses and other opportunities in the future. “Mucho gracias, mis amigas,” says Maria as the women get up to go and carry on with their day. “Hasta luego,” she says with a big smile, knowing she will see her friends again soon.

*not her real name

By Jennifer Lau, CBM Director of Canadian Partnerships