Treating women right

sofaPerhaps unexpectedly, one of the repeated themes of my recent trip to Bolivia was the treatment of women. The friend I was visiting is involved in a range of family work including a pre-school and women’s groups and some of those she is working with are experiencing seriously damaged relationships. I was so impressed with the heartfelt and professional service she is offering and touched at the way the women shared deeply with her and with each other, including support in prayer. Whenever I feel miserable about being single I need to count my blessings that I’m not in a relationship with an abusive man.

One of the fun contributions I was able to make was in sharing some animal songs and pollitosplaying guitar with many of the seventy children in the pre-school. The most popular was ‘El Viejo MacDonald tiene una granja, ia – ia – oh’. Somehow this version of Old MacDonald needed a more Spanish sounding lilt to the ‘eyai eyai eo’. One of the later times I was losing my voice so we spent more time colouring animal pictures first instead. These were used for Old MacDonald, but also for ‘Chickens in the Garden’, a song I knew from Carthy, Hardy, Farrell & Young which my friend had translated into Spanish but which I mainly sang in English. The chorus goes:

‘Treat me daughter decent, don’t do her any harm
And when I die, I’ll leave you both me tidy little farm
Me cow, me pig, me sheep and goats, me stock, me fields and barn
And all the little chickens in the garden’

I’m not sure if the message about treating daughters well really came across that strongly with the language barrier, but I do think we need to start early teaching children to respect one another and boundaries about touching and taking care of the messages we give when we talk to girls in particular. I’ve read some interesting blog articles lately recommended by friends on Facebook and I commend them both to you here.

The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21” was published by Goodmenproject in March this year. It’s designed for parents but has a wide usefulness for teaching staff and family workers – there’s even a translation in Spanish.

How to Talk to Little Girls” was written by Lisa Bloom for the Huffington Post in 2011 and stresses the need to engage with young girls in a way that doesn’t just focus on how pretty and cute they are. Asking instead about what she likes, books or current issues is a way of modelling, says Bloom “what a thinking woman says and does”. It’s easier said than done though. I am so conditioned to complimenting friends on their outfits or hair that this was still my first reaction when I met up with one of the daughters of a friend who had posted the story. Must do better.

After spending time with my friend I toured round some other cities in Bolivia and had a womenstrange introduction to some of the women wearing traditional outfits selling clothes and other items on the street. I think my guide was trying to encourage me to support them by making an argument for how this income for women was an important addition to their husband’s wages. Having spent a week attached to a centre where women worked as teachers, psychologist, dentist, family worker and manager I wanted to stress to him how women in Bolivia had all kinds of jobs and weren’t limited to street selling. But that wasn’t to deny that a lot of women were working on street stalls and I supported very few of them.

Uyuni parade

Different regional outfits seen in a different parade in Uyuni

My most stark presentation of contrasts between men and women in Bolivia came as part of some dancing as a celebration of Bolivian Independence Day which was on 6th August. I was in the main square of the lovely city of Sucre and witnessed a wide range of traditional dances from different areas in Bolivia with some very striking costumes and accomplished music and dancing. But the one that bothered me didn’t seem to be linked to a particular area of Bolivia and involved less traditional costumes. The men were dressed in black and performed some nifty moves jumping around their belts, whipping them about and threatening each other and the women who were in more colourful co-ordinated dresses.

Some of the men acted very drunk, to the amusement of the crowd. But then they were coming on to the women, using their belts to catch the women and trapping them for a kiss. And while I hoped there could be some female unity in rebuffing these obnoxious men they ended up submitting and dancing with their partners. I felt quite angry – was this part of celebrating Bolivian independence? Celebrating the right of men to get drunk and beat their wives? I walked off in dismay and asked various guides about it later. I wasn’t sure if I would rather believe this was a traditional dance or not. While I don’t doubt that drunken, violent husbands represent a reality for more women in Bolivia than anyone would wish, reifying it within popular culture at a major festival seemed incomprehensible to me. The guides also seemed unsure and unfamiliar with any such dance. I would love to find I have truly missed the point and it’s saying something meaningful about cultural oppression but for now, I’m saying what I saw and hoping there’s a better interpretation.

Personally as a single woman travelling alone I have to say I was treated very well in Bolivia. I was grateful for some assistance with my heavy rucksack at times, and was pleased with the service in restaurants and hotels. In fact I was less hassled by men on the streets than I have been in Birmingham. There was one boy who kept trying to touch my hair, but he was under two and in his mother’s arms while I was watching the dancing in Sucre that annoyed me. I guess he wasn’t too young to be told about not touching people but I’m afraid both his Mum and I found it quite cute and let him get away with it. And sometimes we probably do that too much.

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