Friday, July 28, 2006

OK seriously, women's development

Gender and women’s development in Honduras is a big issue. It would be pretty noticeable for me even if all the NGOs weren’t talking about it, because the gender roles are so much more defined than what I’m used to. Coming directly from the states I would have thought of this as innately bad, because that is what has become mainstream knowledge for us. However, in certain ways, especially in the rural areas, you can see how the system makes sense to them. Women cook and clean and raise kids because almost all of the paying work available is very physical work. More do home-oriented small businesses such as bake or run a pulpería (mom and pop store), but these are usually just part-time. At least somebody in the family is sure to dedicate themselves to child-raising, as opposed to in the United States, where this job is in many cases usurped by TV and video games, extremely poor substitutes for the presence of a real parent. It certainly shows in their family unity.

To be honest we could use some of this ethic in the states, where the women's movement has blown by its objective and passed into the realm of Victim of Commercial Culture. It seems to me we failed to create an environment where women feel free to determine their own destiny and now, instead of being told they have to marry and have children to be successful in life, they are told they have to work as many hours as a man and make lots of money and buy lots of things.... to be successful in life. I don't know how qualified I am to say this, being a man and all, but it seems to me that if what a woman wants to do is raise children, that should be cool too. SOMEBODY has to do it. I'd certainly pitch in as a husband or even stay at home if I had a professional wife who loved her job too much to leave it, but at the moment we are definitely putting families on the back burner. Sorry for the tangent, but I had to say it (ask Maya, she knows).

Back to Honduras: so although I wouldn't hesitate a moment in saying they often have more family togetherness than we do in the states, the situation for women certainly isn't all roses. First of all, the problem, in my opinion, isn't that they are staying at home and raising children or doing family businesses or cooking or cleaning or whatever. On the contrary, many women are apparently happy in their roles because they feel useful and needed (no illusion for sure, the women do ALL the heavy lifting in this society). They don't have washing machines and ovens and tv dinners and vacuum cleaners and TV to keep the kids busy, so they have a full job all day long. They also take a lot of pride in their work, and the times I have tried to help out in ¨women's business¨ such as cooking or cleaning when there was already someone else doing it have mainly resulted in embarassment for both parties involved.

The problem, then, is not that women do all these jobs and not really much of anything else, but that they don't really have any say in the matter. The patriarchal fathers are expected to ¨keep control¨of their house and their woman (even though they contribute essentially nothing to it besides money) and they often do so in a way that isn't respectful to the voice of the women. There are no statistics available I'm sure that could be remotely accurate with regards to domestic violence. The machismo culture demands of a man that he rule with force, because a REAL man doesn't ask questions, he gives orders. A man saying thanks to his wife for bringing him coffee? Not likely.

Ironically, there also exists an active pressure for men to cheat on their wives. It's not like they don't know it's bad, but it is certainly one of the best ways for a guy to prove his manliness to his male buddies. Someone who has various women is often looked upon with respect, if not awe. When you consider the way women are looked upon who dare to cheat (or even, sometimes, to have more than one boyfriend in their life), this blatant double standard becomes immediately obvious.

I've thought a lot about what I could possibly do with regards to women's development, but as a male, it is really really hard. I didn't notice this as much until a couple months ago, when Nicole, one of the previous volunteers in El Despoblado, came to visit her old friends from the area, a group of women that I have talked to a fair amount (the son of one of them is a fairly good friend of mine). The easy trust and friendship that she had with these women blew me away. It made me realize more clearly how reserved and even tense the older women are when talking or working with me. With women my age, it's hard to keep track of the work through all the flirting. I have tried to work through this with basically no success. It's interesting, because female volunteers often complain about the difficulties they have of working with men who aren't really disposed to take their ideas seriously. Whereas they miss out on one half of the society's activities, I miss out on the other half, and I'm not entirely convinced I have the better deal, even though being a guy helps a lot for working with the male-heavy community organizations. The women are just AWESOME. I look at the 50 year old Honduran doñas who have raised 8 children and held their house together for more than thirty years and still go about their daily lives with a cheerfulness and lack of complaint that absolutely puts the men to shame, and I am awed.

So to reiterate the question, what can I do? At this point I am trying to be patient with the women I know in the community and hold on to my conviction that often times, simply being a good person and setting a good example can have surprisingly large effects in this world. This, along with eventually being a good parent, is what I consider the surest investment of my time to improve the world. Everything else is more unsure. This attitude also helps me to not get too uptight about my work when things aren't going well, because I know that the value of my friendships with the people in my community is not something to be dismissed lightly, at the very least for myself.


At 12:55 PM, Blogger Joseph Bergstrom said...

Gabe, sorry it took so long to get back to you about the comment you
left about our cooperative, thanks for the advice. We have been meeding
with AHPROCAFE and HICAFE and a couple of different local
cooperatives. things are going well so far, we just formed our junta directiva and
signed an agreement-constitution of sorts with AHPROCAFE to adhere to
their standards for certification. They set a one year timeline for the
certification process and the way tiempo Hondureño goes they'll use all
of it. So I'll be doing what I can to support the farmers in getting
their land ready for certification over the next year.
I'm pretty sure I'm going to focus on coffee development for my
Master's thesis. I am just starting my research but am thinking about
studying cultural and socioeconomic barriers to quality coffee production
and what different development organizations are doing to address these
barriers. I read Luke's website and I really liked what the Moroceli
Foundation did to address farmers’ immediate financial needs, while they
were waiting for their payment for their export. My impression from
training and what I’ve observed in site is that some agencies promoting
agriculture extension (more specifically coffee) are doing a poor job of
addressing these needs. I would eventually like to sit down and talk
about someof this stuff with other volunteers and development workers.
I also need to come up with some academic sources. I am currently
teaching in site and am pretty busy with that but would like to conduct
some field research this coffee season. Hope everything is going
well with you in your site, and happy one year in service tomorrow.
talk to you soon,



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