SANTIAGO, Apr 10 (IPS) - Over 70 percent of community leaders in Chilean shanty towns are women. Their average age is 42, and most of them do not identify with any political party. Forty-five percent believe that the prevailing economic system makes the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
"Our life is extremely lonely. We have to struggle against the whole world to achieve our goals, we have a community that depends on us and we are massively disinformed" about the options that are open to the poor, Cecilia Castro, president of the "We Are Chileans Too" National Association of Campamento (as slums are known in Chile) Leaders, told IPS.
"We did not know that there were funds that could be applied for, or that there were subsidies available. That is why we decided to create the Association in 2006 and go out and look for information," said the 41-year-old slum-dweller.
Castro took part this week in the presentation of the results of the first National Survey of Campamento Leaders, carried out by the Social Research Centre (CIS) attached to the Fundación Un Techo para Chile (A Roof for Chile Foundation), a not-for-profit organisation funded by donations and operated by volunteer workers that was created in 1997 by Jesuit priest Felipe Berríos.
According to official figures, the poverty rate in this South American country of 16 million people declined from 38 percent in 1990 to 13 percent in 2006. But a survey by Un Techo para Chile in 2007 found there were still 533 shanty towns home to 29,000 families nationwide.
The Foundation launched a campaign to eradicate slums by 2010, the 200th anniversary of Chile's independent existence as a republic.
In order to find out more about the characteristics, concerns and hopes of the leaders of the shanty towns, which often lack basic services, the CIS interviewed 289 community leaders around the country in May and June 2007.
The results indicate that 76 percent of the leaders are women, the average age is 42, 55 percent are married, and 50 percent give their main occupation as head of household.
Approximately 90 percent of the respondents said they were religious believers, mainly Roman Catholics (60 percent), followed by Protestant denominations (34 percent).
Some 25 percent of the community leaders had finished primary school, nearly 16 percent had completed their secondary education and nearly five percent had completed studies at university or technical institutes.
Asked what had motivated them to become leaders, 64 percent replied that they "wanted change," whereas 42 percent said they "needed to express themselves."
When it came to politics, 79 percent said they were registered voters, but 62 percent did not identify with any political party - a higher proportion than the national average found by other polls.
Among those leaders who did identify with political parties, 67 percent supported the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy that has governed the country since 1990.
The rightwing opposition Alliance for Chile came second, mentioned by 22 percent of those expressing a party preference, followed by Juntos Podemos Más, a coalition of the Communist Party and other small leftwing parties without parliamentary representation, with 11 percent.
Within the governing coalition, on an individual party basis, the Christian Democracy Party was the most popular, with 32 percent support, followed by the Socialist Party.
The authority who most listens to their opinions, the leaders said, is President Michelle Bachelet. Senators were regarded as those who listen least.
Asked about the factors that exclude or limit participation by poor people in national decision-making, nearly 22 percent of the respondents blamed discrimination by the institutions, more than 13 percent mentioned lack of resources and 13 percent said the fault lay in their own lack of education.
To the question "What does democracy mean, in your opinion?" 26 percent replied "the right to speak up and to vote," nearly 17 percent said "the right to have my views heard," and 13 percent said "equality."
Asked why poverty persists, 45 percent said "the economic system makes the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," 17 percent said "there is no real political will to overcome it (poverty)," and 16 percent said "people's capabilities differ widely."
Furthermore, 52 percent of the interviewees expressed the view that the best way to overcome poverty is to have "better jobs with fairer wages," 30 percent said education and training are needed, and nearly seven percent said "a change in the structures of society" is required.
Ninety-two percent of the community leaders believed that wealth distribution in Chile is unjust. They said the main problems in society today are drug consumption (41 percent), unemployment (15 percent), education (10 percent), and lastly, housing (seven percent).
The social exclusion suffered by families living in the slums is also reflected in their lack of access to technology and cultural recreation, the study says.
For example, 26 percent of the shanty town leaders have never been to a movie theatre, 49 percent have never seen a play, 80 percent have never used e-mail and 74 percent have never surfed the Internet.
Thorny issues in Chilean society were also addressed. Over 55 percent of those surveyed said that "women have no right to an abortion under any circumstances," and 53 percent said "the death penalty is applicable in certain circumstances."
"The expectations these leaders have about social mobility is one of the main conclusions of the study. Taking on leadership roles shows that they are seeking a change, trying to do something about their circumstances, and not just for themselves and their families, but also for their communities," Javiera Pizarro, the head of the CIS, told IPS.
"It has made them look at themselves and think that in five years' time they will be better off than they are now, that they will get decent houses and there will also be more social justice in Chile," the sociologist said.
The demands of shanty town community leaders are not limited to decent housing, Pizarro added, but include improvements in the quality of healthcare and education for their children, and getting wider access to cultural and technological services.
The conclusions of the study should help to include community leaders in the process of formulating public policies, she said.
Government officials should realise that "leaders do not only arise from the traditional circles of power, but also from the grassroots level, and the voices of community leaders should be heard because they speak of their own needs," Pizarro said.
"We are organising regional councils to develop concrete proposals in this election year. We want to tell the presidential candidates, 'Look, these are the proposals of the most vulnerable people in the country, what do you say to them?' We don't want them to offer us the same plans they have been offering for 20 years," Castro stated.
"This year we are going to be much more proactive, we are going to make many more demands. But we're not going to stand on street corners, shouting complaints against the Ministry of National Assets, unless we have a definite proposal to make," the leader concluded.