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Newsweek reported this week that poppy farmers in Afghanistan often get so deeply in debt to their opium buyers that they sell them their underage daughters, for $3,000 to $8,000. But people in poor Muslim nations are not the only ones that consider their women and girls to be little more than chattel. A similar point of view seems to pervade some Zapotec communities in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, as news stories a couple months ago reported.

A woman from a small Zapotec village decided to challenge the traditional system that relegates women to non-citizenship status. She ran for mayor but the votes for her were annulled by the town fathers—so she appealed to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission. Last Saturday, the Los Angeles Times carried an article that updates the story.

Eufrosina Cruz, the woman reformer, recalls how her father married off her older sister to a stranger when she was 12, a similar age to the child brides in Afghanistan described by Newsweek. She said she was inspired to consider other possibilites due to her village school teachers, people who placed as much value on girls as they did on boys.

Though happy in school, she was ordered around her home by males in the family to do chores. When she graduated from primary school, she persuaded her father to allow her to attend high school in a nearby city. She lived with an uncle there who made her work by selling foods on the streets.

She then won a scholarship that allowed her to continue her education at a college in Oaxaca City, where she got her degree. On weekends she rode a bus back to her community and resumed the normal life of a village woman by making tortillas, gathering firewood, pulling weeds, and cleaning up fields. She soon became an accountant.

Though her older sister still has a hard life, Ms. Cruz felt that changes were coming to her town. More families were trying to send at least one child off to get an education, and there is a small, but growing, middle class. She decided, at age 27, to return to her village.

She told the LA Times, “a lot of the men accepted me because I had gone to college, I had a profession and I could speak Spanish.” But being an educated professional also worked against her in the mindset of the community. Since she spends part of each week in her office in Oaxaca City, some thought she would be inappropriate as town mayor when she decided to run.

A town father told her after community elders discarded the ballots that were cast for her that “you are a woman. In our bylaws, women don’t exist.” Cruz responded, “we have to help those women who are still in that place where you don’t have any rights because you’re a woman. The women who live in the mountains are shouting that someone listen to them. . . . I don’t want any women to ever feel alone as I did.”

The schoolteacher who was declared the winner in the mayoral election, Eloy Mendoza, was quite defensive about the results of the balloting. “It’s the way things have always been done here, since we’ve had the use of reason,” he said. He declared that men are the proper ones to run the government since, “we do all the hard physical work.”

“Only men choose the municipal authorities,” he added, because “they are the ones in charge of the tough jobs, the ones who run all the money affairs in the home. . . . Women occupy a special place, they are privileged for us Zapotecs. They don’t lift a hand in the toughest part of the harvest.”

Some people in town feel that if she were mayor she might not be able to participate in the town social celebrations and work projects that are essential aspects of community leadership. Cruz responds that she did, in fact, help with the saint’s celebration last year. She says she has built up the confidence and support of at least some of the men.

According to the Mexican national constitution, the traditional uses and customs of the indigenous communities must be respected. When it came time for the vote, Cruz was not even allowed to cast a ballot, any more than the other women of the town, since town customs prohibited it.

One man in the town, a supporter of Cruz, protested that when the town elders saw that Cruz was winning, they nullified the election results without consulting the rest of the citizens. Cruz complained to an election official in Oaxaca City, who told her it was too late—she could run again in three years. Then he asked her out on a date.

Angered, she took her case to the media, which quickly responded. She made speeches, wrote press releases, and fostered a national controversy about the issue. The Governor of Oaxaca state visited her village in February, promising to “end once and for all the old practice of discriminating against women in local assemblies.”

In March, the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, invited Cruz to stand next to him at a celebration marking International Women’s Day. The president praised “her tenacity, valor, courage and nobility in confronting a milieu . . . that is horribly machista and misogynistic.” He promised to back legislation that would end the discrimination and allow women the right to run for office and to vote.

Douglas Fry, in several of his articles about La Paz, the relatively peaceful Zapotec village in a valley near Oaxaca City, suggests that the nonviolence of that community may be due, in part, to the high status of the women. It is evident that Ms. Cruz may be slowly succeeding in her campaign to change discriminatory attitudes in other Zapotec communities. Perhaps someday they will become as peaceful as La Paz.