Peruvian women are some of the strongest people I have ever met. I will never forget the first time I saw my 90 something year old host grandma walking through the field dressed in colorful skirts, black rubber boots, and a big brimmed hat, with a 35 pound pile of alfalfa strapped to her back while pulling a cow to it’s next feeding spot.
In that moment I thought to myself two things, number one I really needed to start working out and number two, “wow, there is something truly incredible and unique about these women.”
After spending the past few days working with a group of mothers on Income Generating Activities and Women’s Empowerment from the farmlands of Huamachuco, Peru, I am once again left with the same thoughts.
Although Peru is moving leaps and bounds towards gender equality on a national level, most of the promotion and new laws directly effect those whole live in more urban areas. Travel out a few hours into the campo of the Andes Mountains and gender roles still have a strong influence on the culture. Women in general are more shy, soft spoken, and less likely to express their opinions or ideas. In my experience the biggest factor is the lack of education available for women.
For this reason it was no shock when I realized more than half of the women in our workshop were illiterate and had never set foot in a school house as a child.
(That is my favorite part about working as a Peace Corps Volunteer, you never exactly know what situation you’re headed into and you have to constantly change your methods in order to adapt to the learning level and style of the group. It’s the ultimate test in thinking on your feet!)
What do you do when you have a bunch of materials about consumer demand, market studies, setting prices and finances with a room full of women who can’t read or write? The answer is, you teach it all anyways!!
She just needs someone to say, “the time you dedicate to your family and household is just as valuable as the work your husband gets paid to do everyday. ”
She just needs someone to say, “this beautiful handmade poncho you’re wearing could be sold to other people”, or “this delicious tamale is something your community would pay to eat.”
She just needs someone to say, “You are beautiful, strong, compassionate, and gender or education doesn’t define you. You showed up to this classroom today because you have a desire to do something more. You have dreams for yourself and your children… Dreams that are attainable! Dreams that by being here, you are making come true!”
We started the class with one of my favorite self esteem activities. After talking about the unique characteristics and abilities we each have, I put a string on the floor and called it “La Linea de la Verdad”, or the line of truth.
All of the women started on one side of the line and when I said a characteristic that they believed they possessed they were to cross the line. I also made some joke about the piece of string not letting liars across and everyone laughed.
I said “creative” and one woman crossed, then I said “organized” and one more crossed. Then came “ambitious” and no one crossed. Afterwards, “kind” and two more crossed the line of truth. Finally I ended with “mother, sister, daughter and powerful woman” and a few more crossed leaving two who refused. I dug deeper and asked if they were mothers who love and provide for their children and shyly they reply, “si”. I invited them to cross and ever so hesitantly they did.
The starting point is being able to say, “I am creative, organized, ambitious, kind, and a woman.” Something that seems so simple has been made difficult through years of gender norms oppressing Peruvian women and leading them to believe they do not have as much to offer to society as their male counterparts.
As the workshop continued I started to see more smiles, more participation, and interest. Everyone was excited by the idea of being able to do something new. The women who could read were helping those who couldn’t, and even the most shy of participants were whispering the answers to my questions.
It doesn’t matter so much to me if these women start a small income generating activity tomorrow or if they just walk away with a seed of confidence. Both are wins in my book!
When we finally finished for the day I was bombarded by photo requests; it’s not everyday a 6ft tall gringa with blue eyes shows up to class. This happens a lot as a PCV, but this time I had an especially rewarding experience.
As I was about to leave, I heard a soft voice asking for a photo. I looked down to see the oldest woman in the group dressed in a beautiful yellow typical dress standing beside me. Of course I was excited for the photo and even asked for one with my camera!
When I looked back at the picture I noticed that the woman was covering her mouth with her papers from class. I quickly found her again and asked if we could take another picture because I couldn’t see her beautiful smile! She replied, “señorita I don’t have a smile because I have no teeth, my smile is ugly.”
I replied, “You have a beautiful smile, I saw it during class while I was teaching.” What followed… See for yourself below…