Monday, June 21, 2010

Gray Areas & Speaking up about Gender-Based Violence

Perhaps the project I have the most involvement in during my Peace Corps service deals with coordinating women’s empowerment girl’s clubs and conferences that are designed to educate young women about their health and human rights with the following vision. Our vision statement declares that, “We envision a future in which young Mozambican women are equipped with the skills and self-confidence needed to make their own decisions about what is important to their lives and futures. We envision REDES as a national movement linking young women throughout the country and encouraging them to work together to advocate for women’s rights, learn about women’s health, and become leaders in their communities. We hope to someday soon see young women become their own best and strongest advocates.” This REDES Project has become a huge passion of mine, and so I suppose that my friend Callie called for my advice because of my ties to this cause.

Callie began her Peace Corps service about 8 months ago and recently got involved in the REDES Project, helping a group form at her local high school after bringing some enthusiastic students to attend our regional conferences in April. At the conferences, PCVs get a chance to see girls learning and discussing many challenging issues that they face such as domestic violence and sexual abuse (especially with minors). Unfortunately domestic violence and sexual abuse are fairly common in this machismo culture coupled with the fact that much of society, particularly women, have little education and do not know their rights or are not in a position to stand up for them because they are economically dependent (although this is changing). The conference is great because the girls hear from strong, Mozambican women who started off just like the school girls—many growing up in the bush in poor families—who worked their way up to become leaders of women’s rights organizations in Mozambique and who are the exception to the rule in that they openly demand their rights. At our conference in April, two of the speakers spoke about personal experiences, which really touched all of us and served as an example of how any woman can be a victim of gender-based violence, but all of us should speak up! In this particular case, the guest speaker’s husband had tried to use a heavy hand to resolve a marital argument and as soon as he did, she screamed until everyone in the neighborhood came and so did the police. She urged the girls not to keep quiet from embarrassment or to protect the family’s reputation, because once you let gender-based violence happen once with silence then it easily slips into habit. The other guest speaker confessed that she had an abortion after an older powerful gentlemen had used force to sleep with her, and how she had ended up later having two children with another man in her life, but ultimately was raising them as a single mother. The guest speakers’ speeches hit close to home for many girls and after they finished speaking, one confessed a secret she had been harboring a long time and asked them for advice on how she could get help. I have followed up with these guest speakers since the conference and know that more conference participants also called for help with stories of gender-based violence that had happened in their lives who no longer wanted to stay quiet and needed advice on the steps to seek justice. More than anything, these women and girls just needed to know that they were not alone. They wanted to know someone supported their decision to speak up because it is not easy and takes a lot of courage.

When Callie went back to her community after the conference, Alegria, an older woman who had been her Portuguese tutor and had become Callie’s friend, informed her of a grave situation. Alegria’s 49-year-old husband was cheating on her with multiple minor-aged girls! Although sadly this information was not new to Alegria, she had just learned that her husband got a 13-year-old girl pregnant who had given premature birth to a baby boy. Callie went to visit the young girl and reported that he birth was hard on the young girl’s body, which has not yet fully developed, and consequently the girl had dropped out of school. She is an orphan, living with her grandmother, and the older man is paying their family to support the baby. The economic incentive is enough for the family to keep quiet and the girl does not realize that what the man did is even a crime—just imagine the man started having sexual relations with her when she was just 11! He is rumored to be having inappropriate relationships with other young girls in his neighborhood too.

It does not just stop there, but he is a high school teacher and it is pretty commonly known that he goes after students, but it is hard to provide concrete evidence. That is, until this evidence of a baby cropped up! Alegria confessed to Callie that she was sick of it and wanted to draw the line, go to the police and report him, and then divorce him. Callie said that she’d help Alegria, but Alegria responded that she would like to think about it some more. Alegria talked to fellow community members who advised her that the police would not really do anything and that his life was almost already over at age 49, so they should just leave it be and “let God punish him one day.”

Callie called me more and more upset by the day about what she should do in the situation because she felt it was her moral duty to go to the authorities, but also wanted to respect Alegria’s wishes. I was set to meet with the local government representative in charge of gender, Daniela, who has become a good friend of mine, so I invited Callie to come talk with Daniela so we could get some advice from a Mozambican woman that’d understand both the law and culturally-appropriate way to handle it more so than us foreigners involved in this situation. Daniela wanted to take the information to the police as a public crime and get the young girl some help from social services, but Callie wanted to clear it with Alegria first. Daniela said that we could not just sit back or else he was going to continue, and it would one more case adding to the overwhelming silence that occurs commonly when gender-based violence happens in the community.

Callie talked more with Alegria who by that point had shifted completely in favor of keeping quiet because she was worried that her life would end up worse off in the end by turning in her husband. She had decided that a divorce would not be possible or snitching on him because she is unemployed and economically dependent on him. She felt that the community would marginalize her if it became public knowledge and her husband would end up in jail. Poor Callie was torn between taking the case to the police on her own and respecting her friend’s wishes in this gray area, with no clear-cut white or black correct answer. Daniela even proposed a way that they could anonymously tell authorities. In the end, after getting more guidance from the Peace Corps, Callie decided not to go to the police although this story continues to weigh on her heart. She is devoting her energy 100% into the REDES Project, and along with Daniela, we will be holding a training in August to educate 25 local teachers about how to start REDES groups in their schools and use the curriculum. Our hope is that the REDES Project helps empower these women and put them in a position where they can and will speak up in the future, free of economic dependence and full of self-confidence! And where this vicious cycle will not continue to repeat itself.

*By chance, I just so happened to be Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl Wudunn, which is about the oppression that many women face in developing countries and what is being done about it. I highly recommend it!

*Some names changed to protect privacy

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Local Hero and My Thoughts on the Gift of Reading

It’s been forever since I’ve written and I cannot quite put my finger on why so much time has passed without a post. I think one reason is that things have gotten so normal to me in Mozambique and the other is that I have been busy with more work responsibilities and hosting visitors from the States, but with the end of my service coming in 5 months, I would like to take the opportunity to start writing more. On that note…

I have recently started helping out every once in awhile at a pre-school for underprivileged children in a far out “suburb” of Chibuto. Playing with children is one thing that I have faith will always remain pure in this crazy development culture where it often seems like people forget the primary goal in development is to help the children and not to just pocket money from identifying the children in need and forget about the help. The pre-school is an initiative of an elderly Mozambican nun named Sister Catarina and she puts 100% into helping 30 Mozambican kids age 6 and under learn how to speak Portuguese and care for themselves. She also makes sure they get at least two meals a day while they are at the pre-school.

The pre-school opened just over a year ago and although Sister Catarina has help from the Catholic church and from a Portuguese NGO, she spearheads the effort to take care of the children mainly by herself on a day-to-day basis. I am moved by how she has taken Jesus’ call to heart on “caring for the widows and the children” and how she works tirelessly.

The 30 children attend the pre-school Monday through Friday and start to arrive as early as 6 am and some do not get picked up until as late as 6 pm! Think of all the hours she is putting in with no hope of overtime pay, or much in the way of a “thanks”! During the day, the children receive breakfast, snack, lunch, and a bath. They also spend a lot of time playing in the yard, singing educational songs, and napping. It is a large undertaking and two of her main challenges are lack of manpower and finances. The caretakers and parents of the children are supposed to pay about $6 monthly for the pre-school. (Can you imagine sending your child to pre-school for just $6 a month? You can’t even hire a babysitter to watch your kid for that amount for one hour in the States!) Many times the parents either do not pay in full, pay late, or do not have money to contribute at all. Because of these financial challenges, Sister Catarina has a hard time keeping other professors on board because they earn little for a lot of work and often decide it is not worth their efforts.

In spite of all these challenges, Sister Catarina is doing impressive work and giving such a gift to the children and community. The kids are being fed and watched for hours of the day so the caretakers of the orphans or parents can work or go to school (some of the parents are single teenage moms). The children learn to speak Portuguese, which will help them so much when they start elementary school. All schooling is done in Portuguese although in many homes strictly Changana, the local language, is spoken, especially in lower educated households. This poses a great challenge when the kids start school because they have trouble understanding the teachers and the books.
The Catholic Church in Portugal and a Portuguese NGO have aided Sister Catarina immensely by providing her with resources and enough financial support to stay afloat, but there is a lot to be done to keep her project up. Sister Catarina always welcomes me when I stop by to play with the kids or bring visitors to meet them, but I have the easy job. I show up when I have time and stay for a few hours and play with the kids, but then get to go home and do things for myself. I could not help but thinking about all the traveling I have done in the past two months, and how if I had made it my life calling to do something like Sister Catarina, vacation would be nearly impossible. Sister Catarina has those children depending on her every weekday all year long—talk about exhausting!

The last few times that I have gone to the pre-school, I have checked out children’s books from our recently opened library to read to the kids. As soon as I open up the first book, the children go crazy repeating all the words from the picture books. They are hungry to learn, which is so encouraging to see! I think developing a reading culture is so important, but also recognize it is such a luxury. I think back to my childhood when my parents read me 4 books each night before bed. My grandparents used to send them as gifts all the time recognizing how important they were. I was so lucky to have two parents that had time to read to me and a family with the money to buy books. Reading opens so many fountains of knowledge and gives the possibility for us to educate ourselves and learn about anything and everything! Although reading to a few kids is just a small contribution, I still feel like it is one way I can give back while I am here. I can advocate the advantages of reading to all my Mozambican friends and form a habit of bringing books so that the children and teachers at the pre-school might see how beneficial they can be. My hope is that one day the kids grow up literate and that Sister Catarina continues to meet success and improve upon her pre-school project. Because of putting her dream into action through hard work and continued dedication, 30 children have better lives in this community!