Monday, April 2, 2012

From a Woman's Perspective

Over the last year we have portrayed our experience in Peace Corps and Guyana in a very positive light. We have done this because we are truly enjoying our time in Peace Corps and in our new home of Guyana. But that is not to say that we haven’t dealt with some real issues while here, both related to the difference in culture and that Guyana, even with all its splendour and charm, is a developing country, especially in the hinterland regions like where we live. A few weeks ago, I posted a blog from another Peace Corps volunteer that gave a more accurate portrayal of what daily life is really like. This inspired Nate and I to discuss why we haven’t been more real on our blog and we came up with a few reasons: one- we don’t want to give a negative impression of Guyana, two-we really love our community, and three- we chose to come to Peace Corps, no one forced us. So we didn’t want our blog to be a nit-picking, negative-Nancy forum. But on that same note we do want to share some of our frustrations and discuss some real issues that are not necessarily specific to Guyana, but to the developing world and what we have learned. So if you know me, the topic of my first real-issue blog post won’t surprise you. Yup…you guessed it women and the developing nation. Now I promise you I won’t rant and rave for what might seem like hours, because once you open that can of worms, well let’s just say I hope you have some time. I will try and be concise and objective with my thoughts and give just a few real life stories. Also, what I am going to say here is not going to surprise you and it is certainly not new. Many other organizations, books, non-profits have not only discussed this issue, but are currently working to improve the problem. So here it goes.

When first preparing to come to Guyana, Peace Corps told us that we needed to mentally prepare ourselves for the differences in gender roles, especially if we were placed in a remote location. They explained that it would be taboo for Nate to help in household chores, that men ONLY were allowed to partake in drinking and enjoying leisure time outside of the home, and that people would expect me to have children and would probably consider us baron, due to my age. I thought to myself, “Yeah that will probably be hard, but I am mentally prepared for it, so I will just laugh it off.” Wrong! However, the reason it bothered me wasn’t because we were constantly considered strange, but because those gender roles stem from a place so much deeper than just what each gender is supposed to do but how women are constantly treated and considered second-class citizens.

When we first arrived, people, mostly men, would reach across me to shake Nate’s hand and never make eye-contact with me. When asked to go on an outreach trip, the supervisor of the trip, who was usually a woman, would call Nate and ask for his permission for me to go. I would be considered loose if I went to a rum shop with Nate, don’t even think about me going alone-even if it is just to pick something up for a get-together, and when acknowledged at a rum-shop the person buying the drink would ask Nate if I could have a beer, purchase the beer hand it to him for it to be handed to me. Women are not to speak up and when boisterous, like myself, would be asked to please quiet down because I am “too loud,”- true story.

Most women in our site do not aspire to be more than just a housewife with a primary education. Few complete a secondary education (high-school) and even fewer attend university. And it is absolutely right that there is a correlation between women and education and the size and economic status of their families. A small family is usually comprised of six children, while the largest family I have ever seen was 19 children. When I interview women at the antenatal (or prenatal as it’s called in the States) clinic who has a large family, 4 out of five times they do not know how to write or read and often times the children come from different men. Their main and only duties are those of household duties and many of times the family has very little means to buy food, not because the father doesn’t have a job or doesn’t make money, but because the money is spent quickly on superfluous material goods, such as a TV or generator to play music, that he chooses, or on alcohol (which is the most common expense for men). Often times I try and convince women on choosing family planning when they express to me the difficulty of maintaining their family. But more often than not, they do not choose a family planning option or don’t stick with it, because partners do not allow it, mostly because it gets in the way of producing a large family. Of course there are exceptions, but those women are usually educated and are in a more egalitarian household. But at the end of the day, a woman’s worth is directly correlated with how many children she has.

Now, I am only speaking for remote communities. I do not work in the capital of Guyana, Georgetown, and do not know if it is different, but my little observation says that families are smaller, and that woman are becoming more educated and in higher position. But it is still very common and normal to see a 19 year-old having her first or second baby.

When I am asked why I don’t have children and I explain that I am on family planning and waiting until I am financially well-off, and mentally prepared to embark on the beautiful journey of mother-hood, I just get starred at like I am a bit crazy.

On a daily basis, these types of conversations anger me, bring me down and discourage me. I often want to shake these women and men, and say two different things. Women- “you are strong, capable and your self-worth is not calculated in the number of children. GET EDUCATED, speak to your partner, asked to be included in decisions, and if not find another man that will. Come together and SPEAK UP.” Men- “you all have a mother, so respect your partners, include her in decisions, take women’s opinions and educate your daughters!”

It saddens me when I work with youth and the same standards are being passed onto them. Girls don’t speak up in class, and the ones that do are the promiscuous ones (or so they say), they normally have not thought of doing anything other than getting pregnant (usually at the age of 16-17) with their lives and when I encourage them to think outside of the norm, they laugh. Boys speak up, and nonchalantly express that they want a girl who will give them “plenty babies” and when I encourage them to be more egalitarian, well…they laugh and hit on me.

I will continue to be the outlier here and try in the most culturally appropriate way to show that women are equal. And Nate well…he will continue to wash clothes in front of everyone, despite the harassing and laughing, will continue to ask men and others to acknowledge my presence and will always respond “you can ask Ilana that directly, she is very knowledgeable” or “I will need to discuss that with my wife, we make all decisions together.”

Till next time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing Ilana!
    Stay strong and try not to slap/shake anyone as tempting as it may be!
    I love you both.

    ~Jen Sassano