Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, or as we call it in Ecuador, Día de la Mujer. Yesterday, I went to a production of the Vagina Monologues here at a lovely rooftop bar. Against the stunning backdrop of the historic center and the green misty mountains of Quito, American women (and a couple of Ecuadorian women) presented monologues ranging from cheating to short skirts to learning to love themselves and more. Attending this event got me thinking about what it means to be a woman, both here and in the States. About how being female impacts my life in each place. I think that, no matter where we are, at the end of the day, it’s harder for women in this world.
Why is life more difficult for women around the world? Depending where you are, the challenges often overlap and sometimes don’t. In many western countries, women still have to worry about getting equal pay and high-powered jobs, obtaining sufficient maternity leave to care for their children and access to quality daycare, sexual double standards and the orgasm gap, domestic and sexual violence, and unequal power dynamics in relationships, to name a few. In other countries around the world, it can be far worse. Yesterday in the Vagina Monologue production, we were told that 3 million girls around the world are at risk for undergoing genital mutilation each year. UNESCO estimates that 10% of girls in Africa miss a whole week of school each month because they don’t have access to feminine hygiene supplies. Girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa make up twenty-five percent of new HIV infections. In Mexico, one of the worst countries for female violence, six women are murdered daily. Girls are disappearing, dying, and afraid to leave their houses in El Salvador. Every time I read one of these types of articles, it’s burned into my brain. And these are only the articles I’ve stumbled upon through blogs, facebook posts, and NPR perusals.
Ecuador has its own set of problems for women. Teenage pregnancy is very common here. The other day, I stumbled upon the statistic that 60% of pregnancies among Ecuadorian women are unplanned. Abortion is almost impossible to access. Domestic violence is a common occurrence. I’ve heard multiple stories from friends and students here about women being threatened, battered, and injured by their husbands. And aside from this more serious stuff, women are subjected to stricter gender norms and expectations here. While I was living with my host family, for example, I never once saw my host dad cook dinner, even when both my host parents were working. Rarely did I see him helping out with other household chores, either. I had a conversation with my host mom at one point in which she divulged to me that she did not have as much power in their relationship; that when it came time for big decisions to be made, her voice was not equal to his. Women don’t have as good of jobs as men. The people who sell vegetables and fruit juice on the road or in small markets, the people who are selling candies and snacks on the buses, the people begging on the streets are disproportionately women.
As I don’t really have any close Ecuadorian female friends, I don’t have a whole lot of personal stories aside from the ones I just mentioned to share about what it’s like to be a woman in Ecuador. But I can share what my experiences have been like as a (foreign) woman here versus my experiences in the States. Many of the problems are similar, but some are unique.
In the States, I worried about not being taken seriously by men. Sometimes, when I was a child, I remember my mom asking my dad to make phone calls requesting that something be fixed (the internet wasn’t working, some product my parents had bought wasn’t functioning properly, etc) because people would listen to his anger and complaints more than hers. She would be perceived as a hysterical/emotional woman, and he would be perceived as a righteously angry customer. Sad, but true. In the States, I worried about being taken advantage of by men. Once, my freshman year at Cal, I was really, really ill. My friend and floormate was kind enough to take care of me while I was vomiting and incapacitated. He put me to sleep in his roommate’s bed, who was also my friend. I awoke in the middle of the night with the roommate’s hands feeling me up under my shirt. He knew I was super sick. Barely able to move, I froze, pretended to be waking up so he could move his damn hands, and then crawled to the floor. I never quite trusted men in the same way again after that. And my experience was far from unique. One of my best friends was forcibly kissed by a friend of hers. Another friend was taken advantage of by a friend and then shamed for it by their other friends. My best friend from early college years was raped by her abusive boyfriend. I worried about men expecting more from me than I was willing to give. Once, I was out for drinks with a guy and we wanted to hang out more, so he came back with me to my place. When I refused him what he wanted, he said I was leading him on and a tease. In the States, I worried about showing emotions towards guys I was casually dating. If you have too many feelings, you’re an Overly-Emotional Female.
In Ecuador, I worry about my physical safety. As a foreign female, I have a target on my back. I worry about getting mugged again, and I shove my valuables into various pockets and bras at night. I am always scanning the streets, trying to be constantly vigilant of my surroundings. I worry about harassment. I already mentioned this in another blog post, but once while I was alone in a taxi a guy asked if I had a boyfriend, and when I said yes to avoid his flirtations, he started talking to me about condoms and pregnancy and sex. Guys catcall women here unlike anything I’d seen in the States. I prefer to walk with men to reduce this. A few months ago, I tried holding hands with a girl friend to see if that would make men stop calling at us, but it ended up making things worse. I worry about making space for men–in a literal and figurative sense. I am always moving over on the bus to make space for the men who sit down and spread themselves out. I don’t want to touch them. Last Thursday, I was on a bus to work. An older guy sat down next to me and, though I moved as close to the window as I could, I couldn’t avoid my leg touching his. He started talking to me, and asked me invasive questions like where do you live, where do you work, where are you going, etc, after complimenting me on my light eyes. I clearly didn’t want to talk to him, but it didn’t matter to him. When I got off the bus a few stops later, he got off too, and grabbed my arm as we were walking away. I was honestly kind of scared. I can’t imagine ever grabbing some man I didn’t know. Why do men think they can grab women they don’t know? My friend has had equally crappy experiences on the bus, like one time when an old guy forced her into conversation and invited her to go swimming at his place. In Ecuador, I worry about men being dishonest with women. My students last cycle told me that Ecuadorian men are cachudos, which literally translates to “horned” but means that they cheat on their women. I’ve gone out on dates with (unknowingly) two guys here who had girlfriends that I didn’t know about until after. I know that cheating occurs everywhere, but it seems particularly rampant here. I wonder if it has to do with machismo culture and men not respecting women as women deserve. Along the same lines, my friend and I worry about saying no. My friend, particularly, has struggled with this one. When guys want to date you and you don’t want to date them (you tell them “no”), it doesn’t mean no to them. It means “ok let’s take it slow”. My friend literally had one guy call her upwards of 15 times when she didn’t answer the phone over the period of a few days. When she finally picked up after being tired of receiving calls, he more or less bullied her into hanging out. Though somewhat amusing in a ridiculous sort of way, these types of interactions suggest a profound lack of respect for women’s desires and autonomy.
Everywhere in the world, women face problems daily that they must struggle to overcome. No matter where you are around the globe, life is harder for women. But it isn’t all bad. For me personally in Ecuador, despite my struggles, I’ve also had some really positive experiences. In the classroom, for example, I never feel that my students treat me differently because I am a woman. They are in general very respectful towards me and allow me to run my classroom in the way I feel is best. Several times, Ecuadorian men have offered me their seats on public transit. I am lucky to have a boyfriend who is incredibly kind and hardworking, who treats me with respect, who does our dishes and even cooks for me once in a while. It isn’t all gloom and doom.
On this day, the eve of International Women’s Day, I just wanted to take a moment, and encourage you to take a moment, to reflect on the very real challenges women around the world have faced, are facing, and will face. And perhaps more importantly, to reflect on their strength and capableness. Don’t forget to tell the women in your life that you love them and respect them, and encourage others to do the same. Be a feminist. Perhaps in this way, we can make small steps towards improving the quality of life for women everywhere.