One of the perks of my office job was making trips into the field where most of WINGS’ work takes place. On one fine Guatemalan morning I tagged along with WINGS’ team of youth educators to a small town called Tecpan located about two hours away from our Antigua office. The day’s goal was to give a sex education workshop to about 30 youth. I met Eli, WINGS’ Youth Program coordinator and, for that day, my cultural guide and chauffer, at 6am to beat the morning traffic. While I was feeling groggy and slightly unimpressed to be awake so early, Eli was wide awake and in excellent spirits; through osmosis her energy and enthusiasm flowed into me and pretty soon I was alert and anticipative of the day ahead. Off we went, and with eyes wide open, I took it in – I saw the “real‟ Guatemala.
Upon leaving Antigua, the tourist hub of the nation and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first thing I noticed was how the sidewalks disappear and the cheerfully painted colonial houses give way to low, grey concrete buildings „decorated‟ with cell phone company advertisements. I was not in “gringo-land‟ anymore. We shared the two lane highway with chicken buses (old American school buses painted in an amazing array of colours and motifs), that spewed thick, black smoke and dilapidated trucks and vans that literally „snailed‟ their way across the hilly countryside. Hitchhikers stole clandestine rides on bumpers; relying only on their fortitude to keep them from becoming yet another traffic victim. “So this,” I thought, “is what ‘beating the traffic’ in Guatemala looks like.”
As we made our way west, we passed cliffs of red earth that clearly exhibited the deep wounds of recent deadly landslides and women sitting precariously close to the road selling fruit for a pittance. Being “fresh off the boat,‟ so to speak, Eli explained, in slow, clear Spanish so I could understand, the political, economic and social conditions of Guatemala. This was one lesson I was not going to forget.
While I was marginally depressed upon reaching Tecpan with all I had seen and learned along the way, it did not take long for the excitement and enthusiasm of the youth to alter my mood. They were so charged, so full of energy and so happy to be there to learn, that I thought back to my days at high school and felt guilty for my apathy when I was their age. After setting up, ensuring that everyone had a name tag and making introductions, Eli set in on the task at hand: to provide sexual and reproductive health information to youth so that they can better protect themselves from STIs and unwanted pregnancies, as well as address gender roles and stereotypes that undermine the reproductive health of Guatemalans. My job was to take pictures to be used later in communications materials. While I tried to be a fly (with a camera) on the wall, my obvious foreignness caused great curiosity amongst the youth, who kept sneaking peeks at me and bestowing me gifts of shy smiles.
While the youth had a lot of fun learning about different contraceptive methods, earning sweet prizes for correct answers at a bunch of small games set up throughout the yard, the activity which affected me the most was when Eli explained the social construction of gender. On one wall of the cinderblock school house, Eli taped up three pictures: one of a man, one of a woman and one of a man and a woman. She then passed out illustrations of different kinds of work, one to each participant. Each youth was asked to look at their illustration and determine who in their community is responsible for doing that kind of work – the men, the women or both the men and the women – and tape their picture under the respective figure(s) on the wall. One by one the students walk towards the wall and announced out loud so the others could hear: “In my community this work is done by the….”
As I studied gender at university I knew what was to come, but it was still very powerful to hear more than three-fourths of all the students announce that their illustration‟s depiction of work was done by the women in their communities. The poor woman on the wall was swamped with work. With the local gender division of labor explicitly demonstrated on the wall, Eli went on to ask why – “why do women do so much more work than men?” – paving the way for a discussion about gender, gender roles and how to challenge them. While the youth were very interested and attentive, the real reward came after the workshop when one young man came up to Eli and thanked her for his new knowledge. Apparently, before that day, he did not know that women were equal to men.
As we cleaned up – stacking the plastic school chairs and gathering all of our materials – the significance of what had just happened started to sink in. There we were in a small town where stray dogs and shoeless children wander the streets alike, where birthrates are high and women have few rights in both their private relationships and in society at large, but thanks to the skill, knowledge and hard work of Eli and her team of educators, 30 youth just learned how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and STIs. They also learned, standing hand-in-hand, that both women and men deserve respect and have the right to control their bodies. As Eli explained to the class, “change is possible if each one of them incorporates what they have learned today into their own behavior.” “This,” I thought, “is what revolution looks like, one sex education workshop at a time.”
While my time in Guatemala was limited, I was, after all, only an interim development officer, I gained the practical work experience that I was looking for, but also a lot more. It is one thing to study international development in the affluent universities of the North and something totally different to practice it. It is a lot harder than I thought. The daily challenges that development workers face are huge, ranging from high levels of local corruption and violence to the emotional expenses of always being faced with so much poverty and tragedy. There are, however, as my day out with Eli taught me, many rewards and change is not only possible, it is happening.
Sarah Becklake got her BA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University in Canada and her MA in Global Political Economy from Kassel University in Germany. Throughout her university studies she focused on international development, gender and social justice issues. She has studied, lived and/or worked in Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico, Germany and Guatemala. She is currently based in Munich, Germany.
The opinions expressed in this article are mine alone and do not represent the opinions of WINGS. If you would like to learn more about WINGS check out the website at www.wingsguate.org or the blog at www.wingsguate.blogspot.com.
Photos from WINGS.