Regardless of the country you call home, have lived in, or have spent time traveling through, chances are there is a list of “needs improvement” in regards to women. It doesn’t matter what state the country is in. The United States is one of the most powerful countries in the world and we have yet to break the glass ceiling in certain categories. While there are some countries that are leaps and bounds in front of the pact for woman empowerment, nothing is perfect. Women are still objected, discriminated against, harassed, and treated as sub par to the male population.
Before you ask, I don’t regard myself as a feminist, but the time I have spent abroad has put everything in a larger light. I am Pro a lot of things: Pro-freedom of speech, Pro-people spending copious amounts on an animal, Pro-gay rights, and Pro-reality tv to name a few. But one of the most important things I stand behind is Pro-WID/GAD (Women in Development/Gender and Development). Not just because I am a woman myself, but because I believe we were created on the basis of equality. That no one was supposed to be superior than the other.
With that being said, living these past two years in Madagascar, a third world country and a country up until one month did not have a recognizable government, has been anything but normal. This is something I have emphasized over and over again in my blogs, and yet I feel like it can never be enough. Think of everything about the States and reverse it…welcome to Madagascar.
This post is by no means meant to scare people, including my loved ones or make anyone worried about overseas travel. I do want this, however, to be an informative post for anyone who happens to stumble onto my blog and is getting ready for a trip into The Third World setting. There are a few things people should know.
Ever country has it’s own form of sexual harassment. It varies due to culture, lifestyle, host country national’s behavior, etc. I regard Madagascar’s as more of a “More Talk Less Action” sort of harassment. There tends to be much more verbal harassment than physical. This can be deceiving as better than other types/combinations, but if I was being completely honest, I don’t think there can be a better form of harassment. They all stink. I wasn’t prepared for it when I first arrived in country and even after 2 years, I am still not prepared for any of it. The infamous and creepy tsks from men. The ever obvious up and down look as they’re whistling at you. The licking of their lips. The first and sometimes only thing out of a male’s mouth being “so, are you married?” The guaranteed wink. The “accidental” slip of the driver’s hand from the gear shift when you are riding shotgun that just so happens to graze your upper thigh.
At Staging, Peace Corps tries to prep their future volunteers on what living in a Third World Country will really be like. I think at that time, most of us were just focusing on the obvious things that would be drastically different than what we were used to. No running water. Electricity if you were lucky. Using latrines for bathrooms. Hand-washing clothes. Etc. We all knew that treatment of foreigners, especially women would be different, but I don’t think any of us thought it would be to the extent that we have experienced thus far.
It’s important to remember, that there truly is no way to prepare for life in another country, let alone if you were just moving states or cities. It varies. But one thing remains the same. When you first arrive to your new home, it is important to take everything in. See how other women are being treated in your town. Chances are that’s how you’ll be treated too. I am treated slightly better than women in my village because I’m an American, and people who were born and raised outside this island are considered lucky. But in terms of harassment, it’s worse for me due to the same circumstances as above. The first few weeks are like a honeymoon period. Everyone’s on their best behavior, but you’re feeling each other out. You want to get to know the HCNs and the HCNs want to get to know you. It’s also in those first few weeks the your “rules” are established. Do you let people into your house? How do your react to the tsks and actions of men in your town? What type of people do you befriend? So before you set off to try and be the most liked person in town, set your boundaries. Regardless of the time spent in the town–one day, one week, one year–their first impressions are key.
Putting this post into a better light, I have also found being female to be a rewarding experience. I have helped women in my village to gain the confidence to stand up to people, including those they are being harassed by. I also have found that being a woman, it has been easier for me to integrate into a group of people, and for local women accept me. Well, as long as they know I’m not after their men. They look up to me as a form of a role model because of the level of education and where I came from. I have been able to break stereotypes and show that life isn’t just about birthing children and cooking for their husbands, but about opportunities. Finally, they look to me for advice or someone to push ideas off of. I have helped two young girls in my village follow their dream to continue their education by supporting them in their endeavors, mentally obviously.
So in conclusion, being a female is that bad I guess. Yes, sarcasm intended. The things I have learned will help me again as I set off on my next travel adventure, Southeast Asia. Oh the excitement! But I’m not invincible even after all that I know. I live by what our Safety and Security Officer says, “Remember to stay vigilant.”