Colombia’s community mothers’ fight for a decent life in their old age

Colombia's community mothers' fight for a decent life in their old age

(From left to right) Dominga Ramos, Francisca Paternina, Olga Ibáñez and Ana Estela de Ávila have worked as community mothers for 30 years in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Cartagena (Colombia).

(Marcela Madrid Vergara)

Dominga Ramos, Francisca Paternina, Olga Ibáñez and Ana Estela de Ávila have spent the last 30 years of their lives taking care of other people’s children. They are all around 70 years old and are community mothers in El Pozón, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Cartagena (Colombia). Across the country, some 80,000 women, like them, welcome around a dozen children into their homes every day, to feed and look after them while their parents are at work.

Although the retirement age for women in Colombia is 57, these mothers and grandmothers have to keep working for as long as their bodies hold out. If they were to retire, they would no longer receive the minimum wage (737,000 pesos, around US$250 or €234) paid to them each month by the state, and would have to live off a pension bond of just 280,000 pesos a month (approx. US$95, €89).

Dominga, aged 68, has a knee problem and has to walk with a stick. It is a struggle for her to do her job: “I can´t pick up the children, I’ve had some terrible falls and all I can do is call for help.” Olga, aged 69, set herself an ultimatum after having a similar accident: “This is the last year I am going to work, regardless. That’s what the state wants. It wants us to give in.”

Employees without rights

The role of community mother was legalised in Colombia in 1988, with the establishment of the Community Welfare Homes (Hogares Comunitarios de Bienestar). In 1995, the state regulated their work through the ICBF (Colombian Family Welfare Institute). It was not until 2014, however, that they started to receive the minimum wage. Prior to that, they had always received a voluntary contribution for their work from the parents.

Thousands of community mothers, who have given up their homes and their lives to childcare, have for decades been waging a legal battle for recognition of the labour rights denied to them for almost thirty years.

In November 2016, they finally won a victory: the Constitutional Court decided in favour of 106 of them and, in a historic sentence, ordered the Colombian state to pay the wages and pension contributions not paid during all the years they provided their services. In addition, it recommended that measures be implemented to protect the labour rights of all the community mothers in the country.

The state’s immediate response was to call for the sentence to be quashed, arguing that there are insufficient public funds to comply with it: “We have a very serious problem. The Constitutional Court ruling could cost the country 22 billion pesos (around US$7.6 billion; €7 billion), says Cristina Plazas, director of the ICBF.

For Juan Pablo Mantilla, lawyer for the trade union representing community mothers, this figure is exaggerated, as that would be the cost of compensating the 120,000 women who have done this job, not the 106 women that the Court had ruled it should pay.

The government’s other argument for not paying the community mothers is that they are not state workers. This is true, in theory, as the state does not hire them directly but through local foundations, largely made up of parents. “What they do, as their name indicates, is community work. They now have a recognised contract, which they receive through a number of foundations and it is those foundations that have to respond to them,” explains Plazas.

But in practice there is, in fact, a contract (as the Court has recognised) between the community mothers and the state, as they are required to meet minimum criteria: to work between four and eight hours a day, to have suitable housing, to be in a good state of health and be willing to train.

As Fernanda Paternina, a mother of seven who takes care of 14 other children, complains: “They say were are employees of the ICBF. When we go there, they don’t attend to us, but they do, however, visit us several times a year to check that everything is perfectly in order in our home.”

What next?

The Court set a period of one month for settling the amounts owed to the community mothers aged over 60 and two months for those under 60 but with serious health problems. Over four months have gone by since the ruling. The women are still awaiting a response and five have already died in circumstances that could have been avoided, according to the lawyer, Mantilla.

This was the case for Luz Marina García, a community mother from Cali, who suffered from advanced varicose veins. She banged into a table while preparing the materials for an activity with the children and bled to death.

The 101 mothers still waiting for their settlement, and the thousands of others around the country who also have lawsuits underway, do not intend to wait quietly. As of 22 March, thousands of community mothers went on strike to put pressure on the Plenary Chamber of the Constitutional Court, which started to examine the ICBF’s appeal for the decision to be quashed.

After various days of protest in front of the Constitutional Court in Bogota and the ICBF’s regional offices, with chants and placards calling on “the Court to stand by its original decision”, they decided to make the action indefinite. “We will continue to strike until we find out whether they have quashed the ruling or not. If the sentence is dropped, we will lose all the work we have been doing for years,” says Olinda García, president of the union.

The court’s ruling is, undoubtedly, a step towards ensuring respect for the rights of these women, as, although it only calls for reparation to be made to 106 of them, it opens the door to far-reaching reforms. This ruling “takes us closer than ever before to our right to a pension”, they said in the communiqué convening the strike.

But it is only one step. A much broader bill was almost unanimously approved by Congress last year. It proposed contracting community mothers as state employees and granting them a retirement allowance equal to the total minimum wage.

It was everything they had been asking for, for years. But their jubilation was shorted lived. President Juan Manuel Santos rejected the bill, once again on the pretext that it would affect the fiscal balance. The bill had to be sent back to Congress, where it will have to be processed again from scratch.

Such is the situation for these thousands of women, who are not, however, giving up hope of living a tranquil and decent life in their old age. Fernanda, although not one of the 106 women covered by the court ruling, hopes that the decision will be upheld, so that one day she will be able to dedicate time to her seven children, 40 grandchildren and two great grandchildren: “We deprive our own children of love at times, to offer it to others.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.