BUENOS AIRES - At 7 a.m., Norma Andia begins her radio show with an ambulance siren and a charming accent from the high plains of Bolivia.
“Let's go, are you listening to me? Why the long face, didn't you get enough sleep? And you, yes I’m talking to you – don't hurt your woman thinking she doesn't have a family to protect her, because I am her family. And you, who are being abused – call me, I will come to where you live.”
Her listeners know she is not speaking figuratively. Her organization, “Women Without Fear,” empowers woman to emulate the epic superwomen of Quentin Tarantino or Russ Meyer films. When Norma hears about a case of violence against women, a team of 20 to 25 women goes to the victim’s home to confront her abuser. “If the husband hits his wife regularly, we take the wife out of the house and talk to her about the problem. Then we take it step by step. We have been harassed and attacked many times because we function autonomously, without police assistance.”
Norma Andia was born in Bolivia but she considers herself Latin American by adoption. Many nights she sleeps in the building of the August 6 Association, which she presides, because she doesn’t have a home. The association, a Bolivian community organization in Buenos Aires, Argentina, feeds 600 people in its cafeteria. “I receive 300 food rations from the city and find the rest in other places.”
Her day begins very early on the organization’s 91.7 FM Radio Without Borders and ends very late, sometimes with phone calls in the middle of the night: “Norma, help me, they don't want to give me the body of my dead son,” or people who are injured, women who have been beaten, angry husbands, etc.
“I wake up at 5 a.m., take a shower and get the program ready for its 7 a.m. airtime. While I’m on the radio I have to deal with problems of violence, raising money, the organization’s cafeteria and the meetings of the women’s movement. Before I know it, it’s 11 a.m.”
Opening the doors to empowerment
Women Without Fear offers refuge to women from a week to up to two months. “There are women who have let themselves be submitted to harsh beatings, physical and psychological abuse just so their children don’t go without food. It’s like a trade.” For them to be able to stop this vicious cycle, women must start supporting themselves, she says. We need a law that allows housewives to work inside their homes during their free time, without leaving their children by themselves. The idea is that women would charge a fee and in return would do four hours of work in the evenings: sewing, cooking and manufacturing various things.
The objective is to “try to open doors to empowerment – if a woman knows how to make or do something, we must give her the opportunity to start her own business so she can earn some money and feel integrated in society.”
They don’t have financial support, but the organization’s women have a dream: “To create a brand called Big Mama, making clothes for large sizes, for overweight women.” They have created workshops to train other women and many are already starting their own businesses. One group started sewing t-shirts with modal fabric, a cheap semi-synthetic rayon-like fiber; a housewife is cooking some choripanes (chorizo sandwiches) and sells them door to door; another one makes pizzas in her kitchen and sells them to a catering service. A mother of four puts her hairdressing skills to use and goes about town with her pockets full of hair rollers, pins and scissors.
On her radio show, Norma harangues women: “I am respected and I know my rights, and how to defend them. Many Bolivians leave their lands and rivers, their habits, animals and come to Buenos Aires -- a crazy town. Here, if you don’t take care, they will step on you and keep going.”
Norma’s fight started when she was only eight years old: “ I didn’t have a childhood. In my mind there's a horror movie in which I relive my mother’s screams, my brother’s screams. I don't remember ever celebrating my birthday, I don't know how to blow a candle on a cake.”
She migrated to Argentina when she was 16 years old to escape the domestic violence her mother suffered, and kept bringing over family members, one-by-one. “We came to this generous country without borders,” she says, grateful. On the radio, she often says: “We must live this day as if it were the last day of our lives.”