Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Women in Paraguay: A Man's Perspective

     I am teaching a class at the school house of my community. I am teaching a class in geography. We are going to be painting a map of the world with the students. I am hoping to give them a notion of the reality of this crazy planet that they share with 6 billion other people, a planet in which they inhabit some forgotten corner. My idea is to help them understand what the continents look like (none could even sketch a rough outline of their own country). My idea is to show them how large the oceans are (most have never, will never see such a thing). My idea is to give them some perspective of the world (few have been so far as the next pueblo or the nearest city and almost none have ever even been to Asuncion, the capital, a mere 100 miles away).
     In the front row is a girl, a young girl in her mid-teens. She is petite, of slight build and skinny and goofy in all her youth and proportion, and if it was based on size alone, she would have still been a child. But she wears her years on her face. Its not that she is unhappy or downtrodden or that 15-17 is even that old, just that one can tell from looking at her eyes that her strides in life have outpaced her bodily age. She has a dry wit and doesn't seem to care much about the world I am trying to teach the students about (the rest of the students seem quite enthusiastic). In general, I have come to know her as a girl with a rather humorless disposition, one who tends to show very little patience for me, a white American boy almost 7 years older than her, but with far fewer life experiences and, despite my colorful map and my geographic vocabulary, a much more naïve understanding of the world.
     But perhaps I am biased. I know this girl from outside the schoolhouse—she is my neighbor's daughter-in-law. I visit their home often seeing as her father-in-law is my main community counterpart and the president of the local farmer's committee. I work with him on various projects in the community or sometimes just sit with him for a while and sip tereré and talk about the weather. Every time I visit the house, this young girl treats me with the same sort of detached interest, almost annoyance, that I have come to expect from her in the classroom. It makes sense to me, or at least I have come to accept it and understand it in a way that I will explain, but it still seems odd to me because her 2 year old son, Ivan, seems to love me and he yells my name from the house every time I pass by.
     Sometimes I sit and draw with Ivan in my little notebook, a notebook which I originally carried at all times with the aim of taking notes for my job, but which has been slowly converted into the community childrens' sketchbook with the new aim of meticulously recording the hieroglyphic ramblings of illiterate youngsters. Ivan and I are friends and he can almost say my name without it sounding like there are marbles in his mouth; he is a smart little kid and he will go to school one day and who knows, maybe he will make it out of this little rural village and change his fortunes. His mother however, never will.
     She will be lucky to complete high-school (in campo Paraguay, high-school might be more comparable to US grade-school in terms of academics), but even with such a modest goal, the odds are against her. She must raise a child and work the garden and cook and clean for a husband who is not a bad man, not absent, but just as well certainly not willing to step outside the patriarchal gender-roles that would allow his wife (they are not technically married and they may never be) to obtain even a nominal education. The scholastic enthusiasm of most other students at the school plateaus at the limit of resources and systemic educational shortcomings; her's is instead stopped even before that point from having become pregnant at age 15 and from loosing a year or more because she was breastfeeding and from having to tend a household to fulfill her traditional role as child-bearing nest-maker in an overtly machismo culture.
     No doubt, I am sure she is happy with her life in many ways. I am positive that she loves her son more than anything in the world. Indeed, she is a remarkable individual in her own right, if not from notable accomplishments, then from shear resilience and perseverance. But what strikes me about her, what has always struck me about her, is how she seems to wear the condition of women in Paraguay (and perhaps many women of the world in general) like a badge. Its not a bid for pity or a subtle form of complaint, but a weight that she carries in quiet defiance, a weight that she simply grits her teeth and endures because, like so many women, there is perhaps nothing else.
     When we talk about poverty it is always important to remember that, when survival is your primary concern, options are limited. Impoverished people are not as free to pick-up and move or simply change their way of life; the costs, both physical and psychological, are prohibitive and at times even life-threatening. For women living in poverty, this issue is only compounded as gender-inequalities combine with socio-economic conditions to aggravate exponentially every form of entrenched dis-empowerment that exists. It is a well established fact in development literature, be it of a feminist slant or otherwise, that poverty effects women and children harder than it effects men.
     In Paraguay in particular (a context to which I believe I can speak with slightly better authority), it seems that the lot of most women is drawn early in life. In the cities, women are more free to pursue their dreams and achieve more liberal life goals, although this is still tempered by an immensely machismo culture (some say that Paraguay is the most machismo country in the already seething machismo hotbed of Latin America). But in a country that still predominantly consists of small-scale farmers in far-flung rural villages, the trend is much more conservative and therefore, much less forgiving of women with 'non-traditional' aspirations.
     It is always inspiring to find a women in a campo community who do not want to marry, who want to wait till they are older to have children, or who engage in small-scale commercial enterprises so they may earn some money and be just that much more in control of their fate. And yet, for the majority of women, before they have the opportunity to sense or understand this marginally better possibility, they have already gotten pregnant by a man who may or may not bother to stick around (monogamy is not a particularly well regarded virtue in Paraguay despite its overwhelming Catholicism).
     The role of a woman in this society is one of submissiveness and often servility. Their husbands go off to the fields every day to work the land. At home, the women must care for the children, prepare all the food, feed the animals, milk the cows, wash the clothes, sew the clothes, iron the clothes, clean the house, clean the dishes, and when the men return from the field for lunch or at the end of the day, the women must serve them and clean up after them. They must do this even if they are pregnant, or nursing, or if they have 1 child or 10. It is a hard life. 
     Men as well engage in extremely-hard, physically-demanding work almost every day (except when it rains), but the inequality of genders is still evident in many ways. Domestic violence is common and the ability for women to be proactive and assertive is both culturally frowned upon and practically difficult when straddled with any number of children to care for (birth rates are usually quite high for farming families—the record I know for my community is 16 children). While male desertion of families is much more frequent and accepted, such a course of action is not available for women (as much from their motherly dedication and devotion as from cultural/social pressures).
     The incredible responsibility that women take-on in giving birth cannot be understated, and in a country where woman are already extremely marginalized, they assume an even greater cost, a cost that once assumed has ramifications for the rest of their lives. Just think about it this way: if you are alone and hungry, you need only find enough food to feed your own belly. If you are a woman with children, your first priority will be to fill all of their bellies, and then if you are capable and if there is food available and if you can muster the energy, you can then begin to consider your own needs.
     Still, the inequality of women is not an issue strictly dependent on child-bearing, but in a traditional and conservative society, whatever limited options may be available to a childless-woman are just that much more restricted once that individual becomes a mother. In the scheme of understanding poverty and social-inequality as a whole, it is essential to always consider gender dynamics. It is through all forms of dis-empowerment that society continues to suffer. Pursuing non-gendered avenues toward development would be like struggling for personal rights while still supporting institutionalized segregation--it is inherently hypocritical and counterproductive.
     For me, as a young male Peace Corps volunteer serving in Paraguay, it is a tricky line to walk in any attempt to work with women on such issues. Inevitably, in the superimposition of assumed masculinity, the men in my community view any such efforts on my part as a ploy to steal their wives or sleep with other women. I have started working with a women's group (which consists of all older señoras) where those problems are less of an issue and so far, this work seems to be going well. But it is the younger women, those girls in their early teens on the cusp of getting wrangled into the mire of predatory male sexuality, that would benefit the most from an empowering message.
     The message I want to convey is that they have more options in their life than just early pregnancy and a submissive role as a housewife, that they are smart and capable and have the right to stand-up for themselves. To accomplish this, I am relying on the help of some fellow female Peace Corps volunteers (hopefully to lessen the stigma of my dealing with young women), and utilizing the forum of an HIV/AIDS educational workshop to discuss boarder issues of family planning, life-choices and personal responsibility.
     The greater problems are much deeper than simply socio-economics; they are systematic and cultural and to a large extent, inherent in even the most progressive societies of our world. Yet it might just take the right kind of individual with perhaps just the right opportunity or motivation to make a small but significant difference in her fortunes. And who knows, perhaps that one individual can serve as a model for other women to follow in the future, or for men to learn from and understand their own biases in whatever degree possible.
     As a final note, allow me to say: if there was ever a doubt in your mind as to which gender was the stronger gender, dispense with any false pretenses now—women are the bedrock upon which society has continually built its foundations and piled its detritus and it should be a daily miracle and blessing to men that they have agreed to stick with us so far. For that, and for every other inspiration and strength, my hat is off.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Monday, April 1, 2013

Freedom: Costs a Buck-o-Five

*Apologies to those who are not big fans of my more essay-like posts, but I’ve got this crazy old brain just churning away and I gotta do something with these thoughts before I loose them or they drive me mad.

I have written before about the idea of freedom, especially as it finds itself on the tip of the tongue of every politician (particularly within the United States, but certainly not exclusively). Previously, my basic conclusion, one of which I was admittedly unaware at the beginning of my efforts to synthesize my thoughts on the topic, was that “freedom” is not as unqualified of a term as dogmatic ideologies would hope. In other words, “freedom” is infinitely nuanced and subtle, subject to just as much bias and corruption as any other aspect of society. It is far from the innately good and righteous aspiration that popular rhetoric might have us believe. Instead, it must be continually analyzed and reanalyzed not for the sake of freedom itself, but for the greater aims of creating a more just society. We must always ask ourselves ‘what freedoms?’ and at ‘what costs?’ do we pursue such freedoms.
            Of course, this is far less convenient and far more cumbersome of a notion than simply an emblazoned slogan on a gas-station t-shirt (Freedom Isn’t Free!—or something along those lines), but without such qualification we would find ourselves in a sort of Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged) dystopia. Most of us, under the guise of absolute individual freedom, would in fact be completely un-free in any and all significant senses of the word. Lucky for us, such appeals to “absolute individual freedoms” (underhandedly touted by a shocking number of conservatives) are ultimately incongruous with the construction of any sort of functioning social fabric. As members of a society, we daily all offer up any number of ‘individual freedoms’ in the name of greater ‘social freedoms’; this concept in itself--Rousseau’s “social contract”--is an innate part of social life and has been as long as humans (and society) have existed.
            An obvious and yet illustrative example of this: all individuals in society have surrendered their freedom to kill other members of society at will so that, as a whole, society itself can gain the freedom from needless and untimely death or the threat of it. This exemplifies differences along a spectrum of freedom, which ranges from  freedoms to and freedoms from (or as they are more academically referred, positive and negative freedoms, respectively). The plane that lies between these two poles along this spectrum is the space in which freedoms are negotiated and resolved, a phenomenon that occurs through democratic processes that are ultimately (hopefully, but perhaps also unavoidably) founded on social values and ethics. Again, not cut-and-dry, as democracy tends to be a slow and arduous process—as Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, but it’s better than all the rest.” Still, the idea of a democratic negotiation of freedoms and their relative importance is the cornerstone of any stable and just society.
            Even so, as a society, how do we evaluate the freedoms that we, through democratic choice, have come to guarantee? While democratic processes have generally proceeded towards progress and equality, it has not been without considerable, sometimes dramatic stutter-steps. It is quite true, and many events in history would substantiate this claim, that democratic consensus is just as capable of yielding truly heinous results as it is capable of perpetrating good ones. Many would claim that democracy, therefore, is an imperfect process (agreed, but what aspects of human nature are not) and would take such irresolute disillusionment as a cue to adhere to ideological platforms instead. The human desire to hold certain things as ‘absolute’ often causes a descent into the unverifiable abyss of dogmatism, which to me almost universally seems to be a proxy for un-critical and undemocratic group-think.
            But in the absence of ideology and the false absolutes that it promises, on what basis can we honestly frame, reflect upon and critique our social contract? From what moral perspective can the freedoms of society, in all their complexity and subtlety, be interpreted so as to understand their shortcomings and improve upon them? There are many lenses through which these freedoms can be viewed. I propose the following:

Freedom cannot be regarded as an ends within and of itself. It is a means toward achieving a more equal, peaceful, compassionate and just society. Its value must be measured against a metric of achieving these purposes, with the ultimate goal being not the maximization of individual freedoms but the optimization of a human society oriented toward harmony and the alleviation of suffering.
Freedoms must not automatically be assumed to contain an inherent quality of goodness, especially if its consequences themselves are ultimately inequitable or immoral. No individual exists within a vacuum and therefore, freedom, as the ultimate fulfillment of individual human agency, cannot either. Such “freedoms” should only ever represent an indispensable tool to be used by a conscious, compassionate society, not a weapon wielded by the strong to oppress the weak and further injustice (and thanks to the economic cult of global neo-liberalism, it is becoming clearer and clearer that such ‘absolute individual freedoms’ will yield exactly this—and I am choosing to ignore the fundamental hypocrisy in our global economic order and it’s selfish understanding of ‘individual freedom’).
At the same time, such an idea must be regarded with caution. Those who pursue individual freedoms for its own sake fail to understand the communal nature of life, but just as well, those who curtail freedoms for purely utilitarian purposes fail to understand the individual nature of the human experience. The optimization as such through a democratic process will never be a linear process. While the steady march of modernization may apply to certain aspect of civilization, democracy will forever be imbued with the inherent imperfection of human nature. It is both a curse and a blessing, affording us ample time for self-reflection and deeper understanding.
The opportunities to realize a greater global society have never been more abundant. Despite unprecedented challenges, the age of communications and the freedom of information (in itself a great question of negotiated freedoms) has infused a new generation with the capacity and energy to engage in radical change, should they choose to take advantage of it. Going forward, freedom must be as much of an act of justice and compassion as it is an act of liberty. Otherwise, will have once again stutter-stepped and allowed history to pass us by.
Oh yeah, and the US should just fucking pass marriage equality already.

From Paraguay,
little hupo