Hola amigos, last week I mentioned that I would be spending the upcoming week at an all girls’ camp in the Sierra Mountains. This camp is called Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and is put on by Peace Corps volunteers worldwide. Since today is the eve my girl power week, I figured it is a good time to write a blog on something that is very near and dear to my heart, a topic that has been constantly evolving, in my mind at least, for the last 10 months: women’s rights. If you’ve turned on the TV or been on the internet in the last year, you know that FINALLY women’s rights are becoming a global issue with programs like UN Women and the He for She campaign. I knew that coming to South America, I would be submersing my girl power, feminist-self in a society that has, historically, been known for its “machismo” (masculine) culture. It didn’t take long for this fact to become evident and during my time here, I have had to grapple with some tough issues, including my own identity as a feminist, overt sexism and the problems my home country has with regards to women.
Colombian culture is one that celebrates masculinity and strongly encourages women to stay at home, raise their children and take care of the home and to follow more “feminine” avenues of study. I witnessed this in both of my homes in Barranquilla and in the pueblo. In this culture, it is not uncommon or even really looked down upon for a man to have a wife, children and then another woman and even more children on the side. I know several families where the man keeps two homes, one for his wife and children and for his mistress and their children. Is this right? In my opinion, definitely not. However, my old host mom said to me “what the heart can’t see won’t hurt it.” Basically, she was ok with her husband having his other family as long as when he was home, he was present and kind and loving. Some may see her as an oppressed housewife while others may applaud her progressive views on monogamy. What I do know, is that I have not met one woman who has a little piece of man candy on the side.
My biggest issue with the Colombian culture is the pirropos, or catcalls. It is now an expectation, whether I am in my pajamas or dressed up, that when I leave my little pueblo I will be hissed at, whistled at, asked to smile, asked to get in a car, followed, hollered and leered at just while walking around and going about my day. This happened to my friends and me every single day while living in Barranquilla. There were days where I literally did not leave my house because I just couldn’t face it. I tried to start training for a 10k but gave that up from the constant harassment I faced while trying to run around my neighborhood. It did not matter whether I was wearing old running shorts, a baggy t-shirt and dripping in sweat; I was still getting called things I would never want my grandmother to hear. One day, my eye was infected, swollen shut and actually dripping puss so I thought “alright! Today is the day, I am going to run in peace!” Wrong. Luckily, when I moved to my pueblo I quickly told a few of the men how uncomfortable these comments made me and *almost* all of the catcalls have stopped, even though they don’t understand it because, obviously, I should feel wonderful that I receive so many compliments. BARF. I’ve been told, “Oh Jessi, they are just being nice.” “Men just can’t control themselves around you.” “You have to understand, there is no one around here that looks like you so men are just stunned.” BARF BARF BARF. For my first few months, even sometimes still today, I consider this country to be the most sexist, misogynistic place in the world. It took a long time, lots of deep thinking on my long bus rides and countless conversations to realize that this issue, as with almost every other social justice issue, there are so many layers to this cultural behavior that to write Colombia off as a place overrun with sexist jerks would be a disservice to this wonderful place filled with warm, kind and generous people. (This is not to say that I still have, almost daily, conversations with my gal pals while we complain about the disgusting verbal harassment we face on the daily).
You see, I was coming into this situation with my holier than thou, American attitude. America is the land of the freedom and equality! Of course things like this don’t happen where I come from! How easily I forgot all of the honks I got while walking my dog, or the times my butt has been grabbed by strangers in bars or the times I’ve been called a “bitch” or “slut”. Forget about the time that on an airplane, I was asked to move to the middle seat so the men could be more comfortable. Never mind all the times on busses, trains, cars or planes that I tried to make myself as small as possible to give the men sitting next me more room. The teacher who told my 14-year-old self that I looked like a stripper with my off the shoulder top (totally the hot fashion in 2003) was just looking out for me, right? Dress codes? Well those are important so the boys aren’t distracted from their education! I was definitely in the wrong when a boss told me that I was “extra sensitive” to the C word because I’m a female and it really is the equivalent of calling someone an asshole. Girls should be required to wear dresses at their high school graduation, it’s tradition! White women make 78 cents to every dollar a man makes, and women of color have a wage gap that can go as low as 54 cents to every dollar but that is probably because more women choose low-paying jobs like teaching and social work, duh! (aauw.org) Obviously, I needed to take a good long look in the mirror before I judged my new home.
Colombia is a land that celebrates masculinity, yes. But is also a place that celebrates beauty. Women of all shapes and sizes are admired. I have never seen more chivalry in my entire life. A seat on the bus opens up; boom the group of men clears the way so I can sit down. I approach a group of people, instantly a man is up, out of his chair offering it to me. Oh, I don’t have a drink? Here is a water/beer/juice. It’s not all bad. However, this does not excuse the street harassment that myself, my friends and women all over the country face every single day. Male attitudes towards women have to change. The truth remains that women in Colombia only hold 12% of parliament seats, (data.un.org) and men generally earn 28% more than women *not much more than the 22% American men make*. The legal marriage for girls is 12, while for boys it is 14. Studies indicate that 41% of women between the ages of 15-49 have experienced physical violence and 11% have been sexually abused (Violence Against Women in Colombia: A Report to the Committee Against Torture). These statistics, combined with my own observations prove that this country has a long way to go before gender equality is achieved. This is what makes female empowerment camps like GLOW and girls groups so important. These programs focus on gender, leadership, self-esteem and professional development to mold strong girls into stronger, capable women who become change makers in their communities.
For comparison, women in the US hold 20% of government spots, making us #71 in the world, right below Kenya and Saudi Arabia (www.ipu.org). 1 out of every 6 women in the US has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime (rainn.org). 5 US states have lower legal marrying ages for girls than boys (globaljustiveiniciatie.files.wordpress.com). Clearly, women’s rights are not merely an international issue and we Americans have a lot of cleaning up to do in our very own backyard. The experiences of girls and women are different in every country and sexism and discrimination manifest themselves in different ways but they are still there, whether we choose to ignore it or not. Feminist is not a dirty word for crazy radicals or lesbians who don’t shave their armpits. Feminism is the belief in equal rights for EVERYONE: men, women or in-between. It is time for all of us, including myself, to step up and do better. Every time I make myself smaller to accommodate a man, I am telling him that he deserves more than me, that he is better than me. It stops today.
Thanks for reading, amigos! Truth be told, I was kind of dreading camp. Five days, in the mountains, supervising teenage girls was starting to seem like a big punishment. Now, I feel motivated and ready to make this week a, hopefully for the better, life changing experience for these jovencitas. I’ll try to update ASAP. I am spending the weekend with my girl, Staci, in Cartagena and am so freaking excited I might just burst into tears the second I step off the bus. Ok, now please go listen to some Beyonce and watch “Orange is the New Black”!