International Women Day, Internationally

So last week was international women’s day, and those of you who know me personally know that gender (in)equality/the treatment of women/feminism/female body hair/menstrual etiquette/intersectional feminism etc are but a few of my favourite topics of conversation. International women’s day means a lot to me. It represents the struggle of women, the importance of intersectionality and encourages women everywhere to re-claim their voices and bodies. International women’s day is a day of representation for every definition of woman, for every definition that includes the word woman, for everyone who see’s themselves as a woman, and for those who support women. Each woman has their own story to tell; their own ancestry, their own struggles, their own triumphs. They have their own voice, and IWD is a day for these stories to come together and be told unapologetically in their rawest form. It is a day to celebrate women, internationally. In some ways its a shame that we need a day for people to find the courage to speak out, but its a start. (For those of you who don’t think women have been oppressed - or if you are a man and think you are exempt from the patriarchy - I direct you to this article, not written by me but absolutely amazing)

However, this year IWD meant something slightly different for me. Some of you may know, after falling in love with the country, the people and the culture, I have transitioned to Guatemala for the foreseeable future. I love it out here because the weather is warm, the land is fertile and the people are kind. But many of my observations are made through my foreign eyes. Everything I am is saturated with western culture (but thanks to a greek mother raised in Africa, I consider myself pretty adaptable - thanks mum!), and the more time I spend out here the more I am aware of cultural differences, particularly those surrounding the role of women.

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Mayan culture stills plays an important role in Guatemalan society. Indigenous people make up just over half the population - the highest percentage in all of Latin America. The women dress in brightly coloured embroidered clothing, carrying babies on their backs and baskets of handmade goods or food on their heads. To me they are beautiful, but they are also usually illiterate, highly unemployable, and have many unplanned children from a young age. These women of Guatemala are largely discriminated against; first because they are indigenous, and secondly because they are women. They are existing now in a fast-changing society, which is not designed for their success, or even their participation.

Three days a week I am volunteering for an NGO charity, Education of the Children. I am placed as an assistant in the School of Hope - a primary and secondary school currently educating 450 children from disadvantaged backgrounds (read more about this here - and sponsor a child here). Many of the children here have a large number of siblings, with a wide range of ages. When I asked one of the teachers why this was, she said that many of the mothers either didn’t have access to contraception, or their religious beliefs prohibit them from using it. Many also do not have access to health or family planning services and abortion is illegal nationwide. This leads to many young women being forced into motherhood when they are just teenagers.

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Although school is technically free in Guatemala, families still have to pay for books, uniform, transport, and cover many other hidden costs. So if you have a 7 young hungry mouths to feed and you earn about £70/month, school is pretty much unfeasible. As a result, many young children are sent to work shining shoes or selling goods on the side of the road. Young girls in particular are the first to be taken out of school, if they even attended at all. The School of Hope aims to help break the cycle of poverty through education. By making school completely free they encourage parents to keep their children in education until the age of 16. After that, they offer scholarship programmes through college and university. They see prevention as the cure. Teaching children valuable life skills increases their opportunists and possibilities throughout their lives. Even something as simple as learning how to read or write can go a long way in a country where 75% of the population live below the poverty line, and the literacy rate among indigenous women is at 30%.

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Femicide is also a huge issue in Guatemala. The nation has the third highest rate of femicide in the world with around two women killed violently everyday - that’s 62 women per month. Femicide includes verbal, physical and emotional abuse that makes up a continuum of terror, resulting in the death of women. The prosecution of such crime is around 2%. It is often misreported as “gang-related” crime, or simply not reported at all.

In no way am I saying that we have it all figured out and Guatemala can benefit from our systems. We have our own systems of oppression and cultural norms that need to be addressed. Guatemalan culture is alive and well. The clothes, food, landscape and people are dosed in a vibrancy that I have not seen anywhere else in the world. The land boasts volcanoes, lakes, beaches and an abundance of fresh food. In the jungles lie jaguars, monkeys, dragonflies and hidden ruins of Mayan cities filled with magic and awe. Most of the people here are passionate about their country, and many are working towards inspiring and active change for their people.

 

Although feminism comes in many different shapes and sizes, mostly for us westerns, feminism is about finding our voice, re-claiming our bodies, and learning how to love ourselves outside of the male gaze. Feminism is Guatemala is about survival. It is a place where feminism, homosexuality, and even abortion is unwelcome. The women in Guatemala exist within a deeply machismo society and they face challenges everyday that we can’t even comprehend. So this international women’s day, next international women’s day and indeed on any given day of the year, take a moment to acknowledge women worldwide and hear their stories. Feminism and IWD is not just for one woman, it is for all women. Together we rise and together we encourage each other to keep fighting.

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What Can We Do to Help?

Below are a list of charities based in Guatemala, dedicated to helping women and children living in poverty.

Education For The Children - http://www.eftc.org.uk/

Mayan Families - https://www.mayanfamilies.org/

Casa Guatemala - http://www.casa-guatemala.org/

Safe Passage Home - https://www.safepassage.org/

Ninos de Guatemala - https://ninosdeguatemala.org/

Unmarked Streets - http://www.unmarkedstreets.org/

Garden of Hope - http://www.gardenofhopegt.com