Throughout the many enlightening presentations, excursions, and discussions CGE has organized, gender issues have been a reoccurring theme. As someone who has worked in Thailand, the US, and Mexico on women´s barriers to empowerment, it is particularly compelling to see the different challenges each country faces and the sometimes similar mechanisms used to address them.
From speakers such as Lilia Venegas, a researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the students and I have grown to learn that the role of women is deeply embedded in the history of Mexico and has created systematic blockades to gender equality.
(Lilia Venegas teaching the students about Mexican history)Narratives in history continue to fuel animosity and excuses for inequality in Mexico. The story of La Malinche details the narrative of one indigenous woman who was the interpreter between the Spanish conquistadors and her own indigenous people. She is given the title of ¨traitor and ¨whore¨ because her role as Cortés's lover and translator is blamed for the entire fall of the indigenous people. This identity has followed women in history until today, with women either being expected to be obedient housewives--the ¨Virgin of Guadalupe¨ identity--or , if they don´t follow this image, the ¨malinche¨ identity which is largely disrespected and repressed. Another speaker, Xochitl Ramirez, a contributor to an organization that empowers women in poverty, noted that because women feel either stressed to conform to the housewife trajectory or they feel disrespected with an alternative lifestyle, women have low self-esteem, lack education, and are vulnerable to domestic violence. Additionally, these narratives of women in history make it easier for men to take positions of power in society and vilify women. Of course, there are many other sources for machismo present in Mexico, but as Lilia Venegas and Xochitl Ramirez illustrated in their separate talks, these forces are powerful and must be addressed in order for Mexican communities to advance as a whole.
While the forces of machismo are strong in Mexico, there is also a growing movement in many organizations to create strategies that empower women in their everyday lives. A group of women from Luz y Libertad--a nonprofit organization that aims at training women in nutrition, crafts, and self esteem--gave a talk to the students at CGE.
(The women from Luz y Libertad)In their talk, they mentioned a self-esteem workshop activity in which they show pictures to a group of women and ask for their interpretations of the image. For example, they give a picture of a bird in a cage and ask what the women think that the image represents. As soon as the women from Luz and Libertad detailed this activity, I was taken aback because I have experienced this activity myself but in a completely different context. I previously worked in an organization that was created by and for sex workers in Thailand´s red light district to empower the women to be safe in their work place. During my time working for them, we held workshops that included the same activity that Luz and Libertad detailed. We showed the sex workers numerous pictures--someone reaching for a star, for example--and we received many interpretations--someone reaching for a goal or someone reaching for something out of reach were two interpretations. Even though the sex workers in Thailand encounter very different experiences than everyday women living in Mexico, both groups of women are vulnerable to the same effects that patriarchy brings--violence, oppression, and a lack of agency. While I was surprised to see this activity in a completely different part of the world, this mode of community building brings women together to trust each other to share a part of themselves they would not have otherwise shared. No matter what part of the world we reside in, women continue to build communities and bolster a sense of agency in order to slowly break down the patriarchal structures that try to weaken us. The power of women is truly inspirational and in weaving together that power woldwide, we unstitch the forces that repress our freedoms.
(A painting in Chiapas, Mexico)
-Amaris Montes, CGE volunteer