Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Intern Report: Laura Mercer 2005 - 2006 Nuevos Horizontes

Originally posted Winter 2006

Report from Breaking the Silence Intern Laura Mercer

(This email is a mix of journal writing and reflection with other interns over the past three months. I hope that you find it interesting.)

Hola a todos y a todas,

This is probably the 9th time I've sat down to write you this update in the last month. Lately I have been having a hard time articulating in any sort of coherent way my experiences over the past five months. Here comes my best shot! This email will be followed within the next couple of days by a Yahoo photo album with photos since my last update in January. Get comfortable - there are a lot of them. Hope you enjoy.

Work at Nuevos Horizontes (NH) has been extremely satisfying and also very challenging. Within my program (Community Education and Organization - EDOC), I have been responsible for the development of workshops of four themes: HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs); Human Reproduction; Contraceptives; and Puberty. Lately, because of understaffing (we had a co-worker quit in February and don't have the funds to replace her), I have also taken on work in Healthy Relationships, Sexual Decision Making, and Recognizing Violence.

My responsibilities include preparing training manuals for workshop facilitators on these themes (we have a small resource library that has helped a lot with finding information), choosing or designing relevant learning activities, making supporting visual aids (taking into account the low literacy rate of many of the groups we work with), and developing workshop guides. The workshop guides I find really challenging, primarily because of time restrictions and the great diversity of needs between user groups.

For example, I was asked to prepare (and co-facilitate) a 3.5 our workshop on the Education of Sexual Health with emphasis on HIV/AIDS and STIs for a group of 21 urban Elementary and Junior High school teachers. We focused on how to talk to their students about those themes while training them on the subjects. As a means of assessing needs and pre-existing level of knowledge, we did a debate 'For' and 'Against' the education of sexual health in schools. That was really important because it really magnified for us the resistance and barriers to these themes, and gave us a pretty clear idea of what areas where really concerning them as potential educators of sexual health. We spent a fair amount of time developing the concepts (sexuality, sexual health, Sex Ed) with the group afterwards to clear up some pretty major myths and misunderstandings. The group seemed to open up and I think people really took away some important learnings.

When I compare the needs of that group to a women's group in a rural area who have asked to learn about HIV and STIs, I find we are faced with a very different reality and different needs. The one group I have been asked to work with has learned about HIV in part from a woman they know who was infected by her husband who was working (likely illegally, not that that is particularly relevant) in the US and, presumably had an (or several) unprotected affair. (Very common) This group finds that they are most at risk for all kinds of Sexually Transmitted Infections from their husbands who often leave the community for work (often for several years if it is to the US). The women want to know how to protect themselves. We find though that the real question seems to lie in the nature of relationships and the broader culture of machismo. A woman doesn't have the ready option of saying 'no' or demanding their husband use protection because she would be accused of cheating herself, beaten, raped -- the culture of machismo works in such a way that a woman's body is considered to be the rightful property of her husband. And that domestic violence, even rape, is not treated as a crime. So when it comes to education of HIV and STIs, in this case, it seems to me that the place to start is to with self-esteem, consciousness around gender, communication, and options for leaving her husband if she feels that she is in danger. At yet, I have to recognize, for a woman to leave her husband is extremely difficult - not only to make the decision because of all the ways in which the culture conditions her to feel shame, but also that she has very few safe places to go or means to make money to support herself and her children. This is an enormous topic that I could talk about for hours -- just to say that as I become more aware of the complexity of the cultural reality (also economic and political) around HIV and Sexual Health Education, I am really pressed to find approaches to educating on these topics that might really be empowering and, small as it may be, make a positive difference in people's lives.

Most of the workshops we've done have been in public schools in Xela to pretty huge audiences, and short time periods (35-70 minutes). Even if it's just one class, there are 40-50 students, and generally they combined classes so we have between 100-250. A challenge to making presentations participative. There have been other variables that I have come to take into account - like lighting (often one 40 watt light bulb for a huge class with 1 or no windows), thin walls between the classroom and the outdoors where gym class is causing a huge ruckus... I haven't learned to anticipate all these things because I continue to be surprised when we go to new places, and at the same time I think I am getting better at thinking on my feet and being flexible and creative with our plans.

Last Friday I started my literacy class with a woman in Nuevos Horizonte's women's shelter. It was interesting for me to go through the first steps -- helping her to place the pencil correctly, practicing lines, curves, dots, circles, squares... (I should add, all while I thought - probably she too - that she was going to give birth any minute! She had her baby two days later.) I don't think I realized what a process adult literacy truly is. It is such an exciting process and yet I approach it with some cautious optimism because I really think that in the case of this woman especially (as is the case with many I understand) the chances of her being able to continue with her literacy classes to a point where she can be functional, and then the chances of literacy actually serving her in meaningful way in her daily life, are quite few because of the barriers imposed on her has poor, indigenous, barely fluent in Spanish, and female. I used to think of literacy as THE key for development and, in many ways, the base for women's liberation. I still think it is very important and an area that I want to continue to support -- I am also coming to understand how complex and strong the other factors affecting the life of women in this context are, and am still struggling to understand where the most effective, relevant, meaningful spaces for change are.

You'll see in the photos online that Nuevos Horizontes celebrated International Women's Day (March 8) with a cultural show at the Municipal Theatre. That afternoon women and men from the community were celebrated for their work in women's rights. That same day I picked up a pamphlet on 'Femicide' (the killing of women) in Guatemala.

In 2005, 665 women were reported to have been murdered, and 2,300 since 2001. The population of Guatemala is 14 million. Women in Guatemala are subject to all sorts of forms of violence - physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and economic. It continues to be accepted to blame a woman for the violence she lives, accusing her of provoking, 'asking for it', and ultimately, 'deserving it' for breaking the socially imposed gender rules that strictly apply to her: submission, obedience, and humility. Through work with adolescent girls in Xela, I am finding the silence, shame and total confusion around forms of sexual violence especially disturbing. We have recently noticed a pressing need to clarify the meaning of rape and also to help the girls understand the breadth of sexual violence - that it is ALL wrong, and never their fault. And then, there is the work with the adolescent boys -- last week at a workshop on Friendship and Dating, a teenage boy responded that the difference between friendship and dating is that when a guy date a girl, the guy has 'rights' to her body. RIGHTS.

I feel really strongly about focusing on the area of sexual health education (including non-violence) here and again, I realize that while education is extremely important, I see that it's not quite enough. There needs to be a social support system for women who suffer violence, community resources where they can feel safe to seek information and support, a LAW that protects them, and a government and law enforcement that actually does just that - govern and enforce law. I really respect the work of Nuevos Horizontes for providing some of these services to women who suffer violence -- and now I am hoping that they will continue their work and that others will be take up and continue the same battle. There is a very powerful and disturbing Boston Globe article written on femicide, sexual violence against women and impunity in Guatemala that I urge you to read:

Article on Femicide

As you can probably tell, I have been feeling awfully overwhelmed lately. There are many ways in which my education in Latin American history and International Development has served me well here - at least on a theoretical level and certainly in the ways that it has taught me to try to uncover my underlying assumptions about the world around me and to deepen my analyses with critical thinking. And yet in so many other ways I am at a loss as to where to, what now. What are we really working with? What are we really talking about? Is it poverty, lack of resources, corruption and poor governance, violence, natural disasters, crime, gangs, drugs, machismo, delinquency, disease, lack of education, hunger, mental health, malnutrition, globalization, illiteracy, sexual entitlement, prejudice, the civil war, a culture of distrust, women's oppression, deforestation, racism, colonialism, child labor, fragmented communities, low wages, no job security, no pension, exploitation, mining, prostitution, theft, lawlessness, injustice, poor access to social services (of which there are few), poor health care, neoliberalism, the media, The Church, MNCs, the US, The West, The North, fear, hatred, egoism, greed, apathy, ignorance, arrogance, you, me, them, WHAT?! During the day I am at work with all of these variables to varying extents, and in the evening I pour through books that might help me sort out some of them out - Which are causes and which effects? What are the links? How to untangle these factors and then prioritize in my own work? Where to start and what comes next?

I feel so outraged by so much of what I have seen and learned about the reality in Guatemala (and dare to imagine the similarities in countries everywhere), so overwhelmed. And honestly, I feel so glad to be feeling these things because I know that I am really living in this world. Thanks to the support of my internship program, I have really come to understand that stopping at outrage is not enough - I am determined to keep working in this area, making my way through the many challenges and contradictions that accompanies working for social justice.

Something that has very much shaped my experience at Nuevos Horizontes has been the fact that in January the organization learned that they lost their funding from their largest financial supporter. The donor, a Spanish organization, had been a partner for 10 years and has now decided to put its efforts to Tsunami affected zones. Being so focused on Guatemala since September, this news also reopened my eyes to international crises in development. The effect of losing the support of this donor is very serious - as it stands, Nuevos Horizontes will have to close down its operations in June, and its Women's Shelter in September. The closure will last until January 2007 when presumably it will be able to restart with the funding from present partners. I have taken on some responsibility for contacting potential international donors and have had very poor success. I WOULD LIKE TO ASK IF ANY OF YOU can offer me some suggestions of Canadian (or international) organizations, community groups, individuals, businesses, etc. that support initiatives for women's rights, non-violence against women and children, health, indigenous rights, or much more broadly, international development, that might be willing to serve as donors, please. The Director is very busy sending out funding proposals to organizations with whom NH may be able to create longer term relationships. (The process often takes 3-5 months) I am hoping to support her in this work, and also to help find some more immediate funding so they can avoid shutting their doors in 2 months. ANY suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

I should wrap this up seeing as it has been awfully long! (Some of you won't be surprised...) Just to say though before I go, that I have been doing very well with my living situation in essentially all respects but one small but unstoppable problem that, after 5 months, I can no longer deal with. Let's just say that 'Goodnight, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite' has taken on a cruel meaning that will haunt me for months! I am going to be moving into a hostel that is very close to my work where I'll be cooking for myself and hopefully sleeping bug free. I'm sad to leave the family because they have been really special and I've enjoyed their company and their insights. I'm also looking forward to a change.

Oh, and mango season is in full swing so I am in heaven going to the market, choosing my favorite varieties (I basically have them all rated), and paying only 17 cents for each one! Far cry from 2 for 5$!! In sum, I am doing really well, am learning A LOT, and feel very excited to be here doing what I'm doing and at the prospect of doing more in the future. Looking forward to seeing many of you in June when I'm back in British Columbia. Hope you are all doing well.


PS - There are other things I wanted to talk about but will have to wait until I publish 'Laura's Reflections on her 7 months in Guatemala' - no, just kidding, there won't be such a book. I have put some information on each photo so that you have an idea of what the activity or area is about (Especially important for the Finca Trip and the Water Inauguration).