Bolivian Women Fight Prejudice to Be Accepted as Mechanics

Miriam poma is in her electromechanical workshop She had worked in the informal economy and had to overcome many obstacles to become an automotive mechanic CREDIT: Franz Chavez / IPS
  • by Franz Chavez (la paz)
  • Inter Press Service

Automotive mechanics is traditionally associated with masculine men wearing oil-stained coveralls. In La Paz and other Bolivian cities over the years many auto repair shops have upgraded from precarious workshops on the street to modern facilities with high-tech equipment.

Vehicles have also transitioned from human-operated nut-and-gear systems to cars governed by electronics.

But openness to women has not evolved in the same way in the profession, as it is unusual to find female mechanics.

And auto repair shops do not appear in studies on informal employment in Latin America by the International Labor Organization (ILO), although mechanic shops are very much present in the informal sector.

“At the age of five I learned about fractions through tears. Miriam Poma Cabezas is a senior electromechanical techn She is 56 years old and an expert in her field. Castillo says she would go insane if she sat still. She has She is also an expert in rebuilding vintage cars, a specialty for which she has Castillo is an expert in automotive mechanics and has also rebuilt antique cars. CREDIT: Franz Chavez / IPS

With a great deal of effort, Poma managed to set up her own high-level electromechanical repair shop, but before that she had spent years working as an informal self-employed worker, not only in automotive mechanics.

For her part, Castillo complained about the municipal seizure of a piece of land where she wanted to build the mechanic shop of her dreams, together with her husband Mario Cardona. A court ruling granted them the right to use the land and a city council resolution upheld it, but they still have not been given back the land.

A case like so many others

The automotive mechanics sector is just one example of those in which the participation of Bolivian women is particularly difficult, because they are seen as traditionally male professions and there is strong resistance to women breaking into the field, whether out of necessity or a sense of vocation.

The 2018 Annual Report of the UN Women agency, based on figures from the National Institute of Statistics, states that seven out of 10 women in Bolivia are economically active, work in informal conditions and lack labor rights, which makes it difficult to specifically identify how many work as mechanics.

But this high female presence in politics in this South American country of 12.3 million inhabitants does not translate into a boost for women in other areas, particularly business and formal employment.

The president of the Chamber of Businesswomen of Bolivia (Camebol), Silvia Quevedo, told IPS that there is no “state incentive (for women’s participation) in any particular job” and encourages “women themselves to forge their own way, based on the quality of their work. The Chamber of Businesswomen of Bolivia (Camebol) was founded in In La Paz 75 percent of women who are self-employed work in commerce. 15 In the other two largest cities in the country, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, the proportions are similar, according to the report.

Electromechanics specialist Miriam Poma checks on a screen the problems of a high-end vehicle in her specialized workshop in the Bolivian city of El Alto, adjacent to La Paz. CREDIT: Franz Chavez / IPS

Experienced hands

Miriam Poma told IPS that she began to create her own source of employment at the age of 16, on the bustling commercial Huyustus Street in La Paz, where thousands of vendors sell all kinds of merchandise. She sold shoes and handbags.

But soon after, she decided to devote herself full time to repairing Volkswagen vehicles, and ended up as head mechanical assistant to her father, Marcelino Poma, who competed in rally races until he was 70 years old.

Creativity to adapt at a young age to the opportunities of street commerce led Ana Castillo to sell pork sandwiches. She was 14 years old at the time, forced by the responsibility of caring for her two younger brothers after they had all been abandoned by their mother.

“I know how to make everything: sausages, pickles, sauces; I’m not afraid to start from scratch,” Castillo, who helped her two younger brothers earn degrees in business administration and social communication, told IPS enthusiastically.

In the formal economy, “foreign trade has a woman’s face,” said Quevedo, the president of Camebol, based on surveys of the participation of its members in export companies.

Quevedo is an economist with extensive knowledge in agriculture who specializes in exports.

In 2022, international sales of non-traditional products amounted to 9.7 billion dollars, according to the Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade (IBCE), in a country with a GDP of 41 billion dollars.

Poma said the customers in her father’s repair shop initially did not trust her to tune their engines, and tried to keep her from working on their vehicles.

Her brother, Julio Poma, would say he had done the work, and only after the client expressed complete satisfaction would he reveal that the work was actually done by his sister.

Recently, Poma tried to pass on her knowledge to men in the field of motor electronics, but no one was interested in a female instructor who was also a racing driver in 2006. In order to attract students, she had to hire a foreign expert.

A study carried out by the Women’s Institute of La Paz, belonging to the city government, indicated the level of interest in learning gastronomy, computer technology, cell phone use and education in small business finances.

Among the non-conventional trades, the respondents called for training in masonry, plumbing and electricity, a spokesperson for the Institute told IPS. The Institute conducts training workshops for 1,450 low-income women heads of households between the ages of 25 and 70.

(c) Inter Press Service (2023) — All Rights Reserved

Original source: Inter Press Service

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