This is a guest post by Alba in our PCV Spotlight Series:
I am woman, hear me
My name is Alba and I am currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer leader in the TEFL program. I have been in country since September 2012 and living in the mountainous Madriz region since November 2012. Although my primary project has always been working with English teachers in the high school, my time in Nicaragua has also helped me develop my strong passion for gender equality, with a focus on girls’ empowerment and reproductive health education. As I prepare to close my service at the end of this May, I’m taking some time to reflect on lessons Nicaragua has taught and continues to teach me. The second contribution to my “Lessons Learning” series focuses on what it means to be a woman here. If you like it, check out the first post in the series: Breathe.
Today I was leaving school with the girls after dance class and a group of 4 young boys sitting on the side of the court decided it was appropriate to whistle at us as we passed. I told the girls to keep walking and went over to say something to them, explaining that I am a teacher, that their response was inappropriate and I expected them not to do it again. They said they understood, but when I left they called out “¡Adios guapa!” (Good-bye beautiful!) in that most cowardly way that most of my catcalls are thrown at me: to my back.
I grew up being told that I could be anything I wanted, and I believe my parents and teachers either thought it to be true or hoped that belief could make it true. It’s not. I have learned that there are things I cannot ever be. For many young Nicaraguan boys I cannot be an authority figure because they are too lost in all they have digested about what a woman’s real function is. Similarly, I cannot be seen as a peer by many male adults, even in the teaching profession, so blinded are they by my female-ness and probably my foreign-ness as well. It doesn’t help that I’m 25. In an ideal world none of these things should matter, but the truth is these factors combine into a trifecta of reasons not to listen to me or take my ideas seriously – whether they be about teaching methodology or the inappropriateness of catcalls, especially in a school environment but really anywhere in life.
To many Nicaraguan women, I cannot be an adult. Not yet at least, because I am not married and have no children. No matter that I have an undergraduate degree and over 3 combined years’ experience living abroad, expressing myself in a second language, and managing myself in another culture. No matter I’ve been on this earth over 25 years – a young girl of 17 with a baby is a mujer (woman). And I? In their eyes, I am a niña (girl).
Back in November the World Economic Forum released the Global Gender Gap report for 2014, announcing Nicaragua in the top 10 of countries worldwide that are close to reaching gender parity. Over my time here I’ve written various posts around the topic of gender inequality, from my first reaction to catcalls, a plea to give girls here a break, and a case for more men joining Peace Corps. The pervasiveness of gender inequality smacks me in the face multiple times a week and the biggest project I’ve been a part of during my service, Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is designed around the idea that girls need a space to discuss how machismo culture affects their lives and how they can work to change what’s happening in their communities.
What did this report know that I didn’t? How could Nicaragua be in the top 10 for closing the gender gap in the whole world?
With a little online digging, I found out the following: the report focuses on four areas of achievement – (1) Economic participation and opportunity, (2) Educational Attainment, (3) Health and Survival, and (4) Political Empowerment. Turns out things like free access to contraceptive methods (through health centers across the country) and increased participation in the country’s parliament can skew the results toward a closed gap without taking into consideration the daily experience of women in this country.
It ignores the fact that monetarily free access to contraceptives does not mean culturally accepted access: nearly one-third of pregnant women in Nicaragua are between the ages of 14-19.
It says nothing about the one million women believed to be suffering violence within the nation’s borders.
It turns a blind eye to cultural norms that make it ok and even expected for men to father children but not raise them, for women to have career aspirations but stay in the home instead, for young men to reject family planning methods as an insult to their masculinity, and for young women to see their quinceañera (15th birthday party) as the culmination of their young lives and more important than any educational achievement.
I have spent countless hours trying to explain myself to people here: No, feminism does not mean man-hating it means equality for all. Yes, I might want to have kids in the future but no, not now, and even if it does happen, no I don’t expect seeing my child-production as the highest accomplishment of my life. Yes, I am capable of cooking and cleaning as well as managing a budget, traveling on my own, and driving. No, I do not see cat-calls as compliments; I never asked those men for their opinions on my physical appearance nor would I.
The encouraging part is when people can hear through what they’ve been taught and listen to what I’m saying. At a workshop recently a few male teachers commented on the absence of a female teacher. I confirmed that she had to stay at home because there was no one there to take care of her child. The men made comments suggesting she was lazy or just didn’t want to come. I stopped them and asked: “How many men do you know that have a missed a meeting or a day of class because they had to take care of their children? I haven’t seen it happen once in my 2 years and 7 months here. But I know so many women who have. Where are their husbands? Why do only the women have to miss out?” The men were silent but a woman standing nearby replied, “You’re right Alba, but I never noticed it before.”
For me, being a woman in this country (this world) means constantly advocating for myself. I have to be ready at any moment to explain who I am, what I’m doing and why I don’t want a man’s leg all over me in the bus or a market vendor to call me ‘mi amor’ (my love) and stare at me inappropriately as I shop. It means recognizing that I don’t have the same rights in practice that I might have legally and wielding my words against situations of injustice without allowing defensiveness to blind others to my purpose. It means balancing patience and an open-mind with my passion and frustrations so that each step, each interaction, each explanation brings us that tiny bit closer to equality.
- “Top 10 Countries Closing Gender Gap” Population Reference Bureau
- “The Global Gender Gap Index 2014” World Economic Forum
- “Closing the Gender Gap in Nicaragua: Who’s on top?” International Health Policies
You can follow Alba’s adventures at her blog: What Makes Me Come Alive