The Women of Paraguay

Last week I attended a girls’ leadership camp, the Paraguayan version of the international initiative Girls Leading Our World¬†(GLOW). It was my second year helping plan and attending GLOW. The camp is 3 nights long and brings together 50 girls from across Paraguay to talk about being leaders in their communities.

A fantastic group of young women attended this year’s GLOW and we, the volunteers who helped organize the event, were thrilled to have speakers and support from many Paraguayans. GLOW inspired me to reflect on how Paraguayan women have helped me make sense of Paraguay since I started my service.

My biggest struggle in Peace Corps is navigating Paraguayan gender roles, many of those for women are contrary to who I am and many of those assigned to men make me uncomfortable. I’ve had a plethora of eye-opening experiences with regard to how different people see men and women in Paraguay. But, one positive aspect of the female reality in this hot, little country towers above all else, and that is the strength and cohesiveness of Paraguayan women.

There is a bound among women in Paraguay that I never experienced in the States. When I came to Paraguay it was like returning to kindergarten. I was still an adult with adult thoughts, but I understood Paraguayan culture about as well as a five-year-old understands how to live independently, which is to say I felt lost. The Paraguayan style of teaching is to criticize and instruct through jokes. It is hard to deal with at first, I think most of us like to be taken seriously as humans. Between the jeers and the hiccups during my first months, Paraguayan woman after Paraguayan woman gave me advice.

As a result, I grew as a person. I’ve absorbed a little of the Paraguayan woman’s ability to defend herself. I know how Paraguayan women usually act, even though I don’t always follow the rules because I don’t like most of them. I’ve come to understand that while men in Paraguay are free and powerful, women are not as disempowered as I thought they were at first. And, in fact, I would go as far as to say that many Paraguayan women have a strength that many American women I know lack.

The Paraguayan woman is a nurturer. When she is young she looks after his siblings. She treats her father like a king and her brothers like princes. She cooks and cleans and works to make the men in her life happy, even at times when those men do nothing. But, while I as the outsider often find this sickening, there is a positive side to the Paraguayan female sacrifice. She is proud of her work. She is good at negotiating with the men around her, and leading them to compromises that benefit her too. She is close to the women in her family. By her teens she knows her mother, sisters, female cousins, aunts, and grandmother as well as life-long friends in the States know each in their 80s. She knows the needs of every member of her family. She knows how to barter and form strategies to meet those needs.

By the time a Paraguayan woman becomes a wife, a professional, and/or a mother she is the heart of her family. She is the life force and the glue holding people together. She remembers everyone’s birthdays. She does little things to make children feel loved. She can plan a party like a professional event planner. She never misses a detail. She can plot the path of her children so that one day they will be even greater than she is. She knows the powerful members in her community and she knows how to win their respect. She can not control her husband or her brothers, but she is a master of limiting damage. She looks to her core and her female friends to find the power she needs to get through the worst obstacles. She is beautiful. She laughs and she never forgets the women growing up around her.

Paraguayan women are proud. They may not be able to shut down the catcalls that follow them everywhere they go. They may not be free to do all that they desire. They may be afraid to break the norm. But, they don’t let these things stop them. They know how to deal with a rude, drunk man with eloquence and a smile. They know how to see the essence of a person. They know how to fight and to forgive. They know what it is to fall and to get up again, and they know how to win.

When I think about the girls who attended GLOW it makes me happy. They will one day lead their communities.They will improve the lot of the women who come after them. I believe that they have all they need to be and do whatever they want in their lives, and I am honored they shared a bit of their greatness with me.

Advertisements

Hardship

I had dengue, a mosquito-born virus that at best feels like the flu and at worst kills, earlier this month. I had a mild case and feel better now. While I was at the Peace Corps office, seeing the doctors, several volunteers commented that they wanted dengue because it is a badge of courage. This struck a nerve in me, mostly because it is a good illustration of what I believe is a counterproductive and mistaken belief some Peace Corps volunteers have about their service. Mainly, the idea that Peace Corps is about physical hardship and surviving.

Peace Corps is about a lot of things–among them are helping people, growing as an individual, and sharing culture–but it is not about hardship and people should not join the Peace Corps if that is all they seek. They should take up rock climbing, backing-packing, or some other grueling (though rewarding) activity that will take them to the desolate places where most people can’t or won’t go.

Some volunteers are quick to share stories of illness, days without running water and electricity, and weeks of isolation. Perhaps these aspects of their service stand out to them because of their shock factor. Perhaps those volunteers think these challenges are uncommon in the lives of humans. We, Paraguay volunteers, have a word that means “fancy,” which we use to describe volunteers who live in cities and have easy access to grocery stores or have AC in their homes. Sometimes volunteers joke that Paraguay is the “posh corps” because compared to some other countries where Peace Corps works we can get around with ease and could get to a hospital if we were to fall ill.

I reject this frame that Peace Corps makes those who serve stronger because of the physical obstacles they overcome. Illness and less-than-easy living conditions are not an oddity in the human experience, they are the norm. I’m from the States and I lived a time without running water and lived in places with limited, or no, cell service. It only takes a quick trip to the major cities of the US to find food deserts. For example, people who live in the two wards on the “wrong” side of the river in Washington, DC, have almost no access to grocery stores. Around the world, people make do with little.

Peace Corps is outstanding because of the cultural exchange between volunteers and host country nationals. The hardest part of Peace Corps is not fighting big spider that come into your house, it is diving into a world that does’t speak your language and that follows different societal rules than the ones you know. Peace Corps challenges you because it asks you to make friends and contribute all you can to improving your place of service while navigating a culture that you do not, and never will, completely understand like you do your own.

My point is this: In the Peace Corps, energy focused on finding and surviving hardship is energy wasted. Peace Corps, no matter where you are, is difficult. You will struggle at times. You will wonder if you will make it to the end. Some people don’t complete the whole 27 months, and usually their decision to leave has nothing to do with which amenities they had in their homes or which illnesses they caught. Most volunteers do finish. And those that do have more stories to tell than their dear family, friends, and acquaintances at home have patience to hear.

Volunteers I implore that you don’t make the 15 to 30 seconds most people will give you to talk about your service about dengue. To focus on something so trivial to your service is to do yourself and your host country a disservice. Tell your friends something fantastic you learned about your strange home. Tell them about something you did to help make life better. Tell them about the men, women, and children you met. Tell them something that matters. Tell them something that would make your host country proud, not something that perpetuates the misconception that those who live in the “third world” are downtrodden.