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Bolivian activist to receive Methodist peace award

11/10/2003 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

A photograph is available with this report.

A UMNS Report By Linda Bloom*

A 37-year-old Bolivian household worker-turned-activist is the recipient of the World Methodist Peace Award.

Casimira Rodriguez Romero will be recognized in a Nov. 20 ceremony at La Reforma Methodist Church in La Paz, Bolivia. His Eminence Sunday Mbang, chairperson of the World Methodist Council, will present the award, which is given annually by the council to an individual or group that has made significant contributions to peace and reconciliation.

Bishop Carlos Intipampa, Methodist Church of Bolivia, nominated Rodriguez for her efforts for peace, reconciliation and justice in the face of centuries of oppression.

Born into a poor Quechua family near Cochabamba, Rodriguez began the hard life of a household worker when she was just 13. "That was a very negative experience," she told Wilson Boots, a United Methodist Board of Global Ministries missionary, in an interview last July. "I had to serve more than 15 people, and I was in charge of so many things."

When Rodriguez was still a teenager, she formed a support group with fellow workers, and they began organizing to seek legal rights for themselves and other workers. In 1986, she was elected to head conflict resolution at the national Household Workers Congress, and a decade later she became chief executive of the congress.

The experience of household workers had always been tied to the treatment they received from employers. "In my case, many wounds were left due to exploitation and discrimination towards household workers," she said. "The lack of courage to fight back and not be able to speak up was so frequent that I started thinking that all this was normal."

Moving to La Paz, she continued to work part-time in households while advocating for human rights. A major victory occurred in 2000, when Bolivia's Senate passed legislation supporting rights of just salary compensation and legal rights for household workers. Churches and human rights groups joined the intensive campaign for that legislation, which culminated in her public presentation of 15,000 signatures in support of some 114,000 household workers.

After the lower House of the Bolivian Congress passed the legislation, the law for salaried household workers became effective last April.

"We finally have rights protected by the law, and that gives my fellow workers the courage to struggle for the dignity that we didn't have before," said Rodriguez, who also was elected chief executive of the Confederation of Household Workers of Latin America and the Caribbean in 2001. "Now they are proud of what they do for a living."

Throughout her fight for justice, Rodriguez, a practicing Methodist, said she has often turned to God for guidance. "One of the things I have enjoyed about my national leadership responsibilities in Bolivia has been the opportunity to travel throughout the country and work with fellow household workers," she told Boots.

"Many sisters have prayed for me and given me their moral support, which has been such a spiritual support for me. I believe that the Lord has given me a mission to continue working on behalf of the household workers who are so marginalized and mistreated by society."

Noting how her faith has sustained and guided her, the Rev. George Freeman, chief executive of the World Methodist Council, called her commitment to peace and justice "a model for all of us."

Past recipients of the award have included President Boris Trajkovsky of Macedonia; Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa; Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina; and the Community of St. Egidio in Rome.

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*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

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