Tuesday, May 02, 2017

What would we hear if we listened?

Garifuna woman in Honduras prepares yucca bread, a staple of the Garifuna diet.

My Cuso International volunteer credentials have earned me the opportunity to present at a University of Victoria student symposium this Friday put on by the Centre for Global Studies. Here's what I'm going to be talking about. I thought I'd be able to post a link to the blogs that presenters have written in advance of the symposium, but they appear to be available only to those with a UVic sign-on. So you'll have to make do with mine alone, cut and pasted here.


The desire to help women in distant lands is a wonderful thing. We’re still a long way from gender equality here in Canada, but we’re living the dream compared to many countries around the world. Our sisters in less privileged parts of the globe could definitely use a little transnational solidarity.

But after five years of working with Cuso International in Honduras and Nicaragua, I saw that there are right ways of expressing our solidarity, and wrong ways. Even on the issues that women around the world can generally agree on – eliminating domestic violence, equal pay for work of equal value, addressing societal and cultural factors that leave women so much more vulnerable to poverty – the most fundamental first step is to ensure women with lived experience are guiding every process, program and policy intended to help them.

One of the most common mistakes we make is to presume that women in other lands and cultures want exactly what Canadian women want, and that the issues we have tackled in our own land are automatically the same issues they would pick for themselves.

But they’re not us. They’ve grown up with different cultural norms, in different kinds of families, with different values. They’re not looking to turn their backs on the life they have, nor to have women from countries like Canada sweep in with pity in their eyes and a plan to “make things right.”

Yes, they appreciate the support of wealthier countries to improve what they know needs improving. But they’re the experts of their own lives. Approaches that presume to know what another population wants are not just patronizing, insulting and doomed to fail, they deny the tremendous strengths and strategies women in other countries have already developed to get by in an unequal world.

A small example from Nicaragua: International initiatives aimed at encouraging subsistence farmers to commercialize, rather than grow just enough to feed their families. It’s a great goal on paper as a means for getting more impoverished Nicaraguans into the paid economy, but let’s take a look at that concept from a rural smallhold farmer’s perspective.

First, that farmer is already putting in a very long day. She gets up sometimes as early as 3:30 a.m. to start making the tortillas that fuel her big family, and crawls into bed exhausted sometime after 10 p.m. She tends to the farm animals and the plot of land, cooks at least two or three meals over the course of the day – from scratch, because a subsistence farmer isn’t buying packaged goods – and does household chores without the benefit of a washer/dryer or dishwasher, or even running water or electricity in some cases.

She almost certainly has no vehicle at her disposal, or money to buy gas even if she did. She probably lives in a very small community along a very bad piece of road – that’s where land is affordable, after all. She’s accustomed to hitching rides in the back of a more well-heeled neighbour’s truck when she needs to get somewhere, but the neighbours aren’t often going to be travelling to the larger centres where the big markets are in the exact window of time when the woman would need to arrive and depart, let alone have room for her and her produce.

It’s also difficult, if not downright impossible, for her to be away from the family home for long periods of time. The family counts on her to prepare their meals, and both they and the community count on her to be the unpaid caregiver for aging parents, grandchildren, children with physical or mental disabilities, or sick neighbours or relatives in need. In a land without daycare, old-age homes, or any kind of social supports, you’ve got to be available to help others so that they’ll be there for you when the time comes.

So while the international aid community may have the best of intentions in wanting to launch this woman into the paid economy for her own good, she isn’t interested. All she sees is more work added to a jam-packed day, and impossible logistics.

Nor would she ever be able to earn much even if she could overcome the challenges. Without the greenhouses, fertilizers and irrigation systems available to large commercial producers, she can’t grow the kind of flawless produce that picky consumers in Nicaragua and abroad demand. And with climate change dramatically affecting the predictability of Nicaragua’s rainy season, she can’t promise the kind of consistent quantity and delivery of product that the stores and markets demand.

She also can’t get a loan to help her get started with commercialization. You need equity to get a loan, and in all likelihood this woman isn’t named on the title of the land she and her husband farm. That problem is partly cultural, because traditionally, only men are listed on title in Nicaragua, and partly systemic in a country that has no functional land-title registry.

What kind of development effort might actually improve this woman’s life? A project to build her a higher pila – a big sink – so she could wash clothes and dishes without stooping. Support to build an efficient cooking stove with a chimney, sparing her family constant respiratory problems from smoke inhalation and reducing the time that the woman spends scavenging for firewood every day. The development of water sources and distribution systems so her family could install drip irrigation and grow produce year-round. A decent and accessible education for her children to prepare them for better-paid work.

When we start with the premise that women are the experts of their own lives, we find ways to help that make sense. It’s the wisdom of women on the ground in countries of less privilege that brings the concepts of solidarity to life in meaningful and effective ways.