These days, I am engaged in a massive survey of community members who want to return to live in Mampuján Viejo. One of the questions asks about the work that each member of the family was doing before and after the displacement. When I interview men, they state that they were engaged in agriculture, and continue in the same. When I ask what their partners are doing, they shrug and either say ama de casa (housewife), caring for the home or nothing. When men are asked about their life-goals for the next 5 years, they desire to own land, work the soil, and buy cattle.
It is not easy to be a woman (or a person in general). However, when I first arrived in Mampuján, I was shocked at the life of many of the women I encountered. Their lives were so different from mine and the life I was used to living in Canada!
And in many ways, their lives are much harder than mine will ever be, according to my ideas of ease and hardship. I am the only single, childless 30 year old woman in this community and am happy with my choices. I have an education and feel that I have much more autonomy and independence than any other woman in the community.
Cultural pressures encourage women to get married and have children at a very young age. They are constantly cheated on and blamed for it; many of the men have two families. When I asked one senor if he had a wife he would be returning with, it took him a few minutes to decide who he would take back.
From the outside, and from northern assumptions of homemaking, it appears that the main role of women is to stay home, raise children, do laundry and make rice. And it’s true- women are engaged in all of these activities.
Over the course of being here, I have learnt that what might be the obvious way of viewing the women here is not necessarily the way they view themselves or their activities. When asked about their work, women say something very different, even as they use the term ama de casa as an umbrella for their various activities.
Women are using their abilities and households good to support their families and care for themselves in ways that go beyond the North American stereotype of homemaker or passive Latina. Using only a blender and a freezer, they make popsicles, juice, ice blocks, and corn drinks to sell. They sell firewood, fix clothes, own small stores, fry fish, run restaurants, and engage in a myriad of other income-generating activities. Women may not be actively working the land themselves, but they hire laborious to work for them. They travel to Carcass to work, leaving their children behind so they can send money home, and perhaps be more independent.
Their dreams and life goals for the next five years are to be self-sufficient, to raise chickens and pigs to provide food security and to be an active participant in their households. Resistance and resilience: both words describe my neighbours as women who actively engage in making choices about their future. Not just as passive subjects, but actors who, just as women in the west, are engaged in controlling the direction of their own life.
Does this mean I don’t think change is needed? Absolutely not. It bothers me that ama de casa is not considered work on the survey form, nor is often considered work by the men in question. It bothers me that the informal work of women, both here and in North America is not recognized as work that contributes to the GDP. It bothers me that women in both places are still seen as subjects too much of the time, no matter what they do or choices they make. It bothers me that gender relations are often dysfunctional worldwide.
Just as many improvements are needed Canada, life is not perfect here either. But, I want the community, especially its women, to be in charge of creating the change that they need, based on what they say they need, not what I think they need. I want to facilitate, not impose. I want to examine global structures of power that replicate patriarchal patterns instead of assuming that the western world brings the answers to gender relations along with structural adjustment and multi-national corporations.
So, what is my role in all of this? I affirm to whoever is responding to my questions that the work they are doing is important and counts as real work. They already know that, but as someone from outside, I try to affirm that I also recognize what they are doing as important and vital to the wellbeing of the community. Their choices are valid because they are valid.
It is humbling, but I am learning that while I might be a woman, that doesn’t mean I have the answers for what it means to be a woman everywhere.