We are happy to present blog posts from Lori Niehaus, the Boston College JUHAN Fellow. Read along and follow her on her monthly blogs as she reflects on her time studying in Ecuador this semester!
Wednesday, January 11, 2017 – Interfaith Dialogue in Quito
¡Mirad cuán bueno y cuán delicioso es habitar los hermanos juntos en armonía! – Salmo 133:1
[How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! – Psalm 133:1]
Quito is estimated to be 90% Roman Catholic, and noticeably so. The influence of Catholicism is apparent in more than just the physical cathedrals and religious structures that remain standing since Spain’s conquest of the region in the 1500s.
Coming to Quito as a Catholic, it never occurred to me to think about what it would be like if I wasn’t. The other day, however, I had a unique opportunity to attend a conference at my university, as an invitee of a religion professor who sat next to me on the plane to Quito. The topic of the conference was interfaith dialogue, and there was a USFQ student there who had converted to Islam when she was younger who shared her experiences with the group.
When she was younger, a grade school classmate asked her why she wore her hijab. She said “because I’m a Muslim”. The response: “but if you’re a Muslim, why do you Speak Spanish?”. Fast forward to her first days at USFQ. In one instance, she was walking into campus when an adult stopped her, hugged her, and said “Welcome to my country!”. She said she felt both the women’s love and good intentions but also confusion and pain. “Thanks, but I was born here.”
In a discussion on conflict and peacemaking, two powerful points stuck with me. The first was on terrorism and how it can be prevented by bringing children together, in relation specifically to current efforts in Israel and Palestine: “If you grow up together, you don’t throw a bomb at your friend’s house.” The second point referred to the U.S. and the current strong political and social divide in the wake of the election. As an American liberal himself, one of the theology students said “the problem with the American liberal tradition is that we assume that rational conversation is the best way to engage”. This is not to say that facts are not valuable and should be respected, but how many times have you tried to argue with reason alone and never reached an understanding? Perhaps, a better way would be to share food or to dance with one another; let people in, rather than trying to fight to them.
Friday, February 17, 2017 – Mi Caleta and Kids of the Street
“Te deseo humor y un brillo en los ojos. Te deseo gloria y la fuerza para soportar sus cargas. Te deseo sol en el camino y tormentas para aclimatar tu jornada. Te deseo paz… en el mundo en que vives y en la esquina más pequeña del corazón donde guardas la verdad. Te deseo fe, para ayudarte a definir tu forma de vivir y tu vida.
Mas no puedo desearte –excepto amor, tal vez- que hacer que el resto valga la pena.”
- Robert A. Ward
[I wish you humor and a twinkle in the eye. I wish you glory and the strength to bear its burdens. I wish you sunshine on your path and storms to season your journey. I wish you peace in the world in which you live and in the smallest corner of the heart where truth is kept. I wish you faith to help define your living and your life. More I cannot wish you, except perhaps love, to make all the rest worthwhile.]
This week, we had the remarkable opportunity to visit Mi Caleta, a refuge for kids on the streets. Mi Caleta is part of a larger organization in Ecuador, known as La Fundación Proyecto Salesiano. In Ecuador, children can be seen in the street wherever you go, but it is important to make the distinction between “niños en la calle” (kids in the street) and “niños de la calle” (kids of the street). The basic difference is that the former have homes and parents. They seek refuge in the streets, often selling snacks or trinkets, but have homes to which they can return. Niños de la calle do not. For one reason or another, including abusive families or families that simply couldn’t afford to take care of them, they are forced to fend for themselves each day. These kids often come to the streets when they’re as young as five or six. Drug problems, specifically huffing glue, because its cheap and a quick high, are also persistent on the street. When we asked Jairo, a former kid of the street now volunteering at Mi Caleta while studying to be a psychologist, about why this problem is so persistent he said, “The drugs help you to forget that you’re hungry and freezing.”
Currently, seven young boys live at Mi Caleta, but about seventy more come just during the days and sleep at their houses. The program is designed so that once a child living on the street accepts the conditions of the program, which is completely their decision and includes being drug-free, helping with cleaning and cooking, and attending school, they will live at Mi Caleta for a maximum of six months. During this time, a major goal is to instill in them the importance of continuing their education and provide them with the resources to do so. If after those six months a child needs more attention, he will be sent to another home that is a part of the Salesiano Project.
Mi Caleta is an incredible organization, but what’s even more incredible are the kids there. Despite their young age and hard life, I have never met a happier bunch. I had the opportunity to play soccer with them (if you ask any of the younger ones what they want to be when they grow up, the answer is unanimously futbolistas), and it was some of the most fun I’ve had since being here.
Wednesday, March 8, 2017 – The Role of the Woman in Ecuador
“Al resolver los problemas, escarba en las raíces en lugar de simplemente cortar las hojas.”
– Anthony J. D’Angelo
[“When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves.”]
¡Feliz día de la mujer! The celebration here is incredible and full of love. From the moment a woman wakes up, their day is full of hugs, genuine celebration of their being a woman, and (if you’re lucky) lots of chocolates and flowers. At work, when I commented on my pleasant surprise about how seriously the day was celebrated, my colleague said she just never understood why Americans got President’s day off of school and work. Reflecting on her comments, it is pretty peculiar that we get a day off of school to celebrate Christopher Columbus, but never to celebrate the many women who have made genuine accomplishments in our history.
Looking at the situation of the woman in Ecuador is interesting. Following a 1998 law that required 30% of congressional candidates to be women in 2000 and 50% to be women in 2008, Ecuador is the country with the second largest number of congresswomen in the region (57/137), 41%. (Compare this to the United States, where only 19% of congress is composed of women (84/435)). Today in Ecuador, there are more literate women than they are men, and, although she didn’t win, a female candidate, Cynthia Viteri, gained lots of support in the first-round of the 2017 presidential election.
Still in contrast to these successes, Ecuador remains far-off from achieving gender equality. Domestic violence continues to be large problem, despite a 1995 law protesting women against it, with six out of every ten women reporting to be victims at some point in their lives. Femicide, the killing of a woman or girl for the reason of gender, has also received a lot of attention in the press lately, with 80 reported cases in 2016. Additionally, family planning efforts are still not reaching those most in need, and the rates of teenage pregnancy are extremely high. The other day in the clinic, an 11-year old girl came into the gynecology department where I was working; she was pregnant. And last but not least, there is also the controversial culture of machismo, the exercise of masculine power or dominance over women.
Unfortunately, machismo is unavoidable in my experience here, penetrating both life inside and outside for the home. When I wake up in the mornings, my host mom is cooking and preparing dinner. When I get home, she’s cleaning the house before serving dinner. I have never seen my host father do any household chores or cooking. Luckily, my mom is a superwoman. In one of my friend’s classes the other day, we were all shocked when her professors said that she didn’t understand the feminist movement in the United States, because men and women are not equal. [Note: I said, SHE (the professor is a woman herself). It is important to recognize that machismo is more often perpetuated by women than by men. For example, when a mother encourages her son to go out and play sports, while insisting her daughter help her in the kitchen, or when the common phrase “boys don’t cry” is emphasized.] On the streets, machismo culture is evident through “piropos”, or suggestive comments made at women in the street. In Quito, 70% of women report feeling afraid of being attacked in public spaces. At times, piropos can escalate the level of street harassment, and many movements have been started by affected women in Latin America to address it. The government has also begun to take action, initiating the Project “Quito, a Secure City for Women and Girls” in March of last year.
To begin to address machismo culture in Latin America, it is important to know where it originated. In truth, a lot of it has been influenced by the Catholic Church through an idea known as “Marianismo”, meaning like the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe. The Virgin evokes attributes such as purity, innocence, sacrifice, submission, and obedience. It was thus taught, that all women, to make a good wife, should portray these qualities. This concept has been paired with Hembrismo, which insists that the purpose of the woman is for the pleasure of the man. It is based on the idea that woman cannot be trusted with other responsibilities. This idea has historic roots dating back to the Spanish conquest of Latin America, resulting from “Malinchismo”, another concept of women, in which all of them, except for “la madre” (those that are like the Virgin) are traitors and liars. The word comes from La Malinche, a Mexican indigenous Aztec woman who was raped by Spanish conquistador Fernand Cortez. The story says that La Malinche fell in love with her violator and betrayed her people by telling him military secrets which led to the fall of the Aztec empire.
It is aweing how deeply rooted these problems are. Machismo is not a culture that is going to disappear overnight. Many Catholic women still struggle with finding their role in the Church, but the Church’s patriarchal structure and influence is not going to change overnight. Devastatingly, domestic violence and femicide are not going to suddenly evaporate into a thing of the past.
It follows that there is only one thing that can change overnight if we so chose, and that is our determination to do something about it. Ecuador and the United States have both made great steps forward, but there is still a long way to go. As women and allies, it is essential to use the power inherent in ourselves to fight for equality and the dignity of all woman.