Last night I had an all-too-familiar conversation with our neighbors. As Dan and I were returning from hanging out with the family, a big group of our neighbors spotted us and invited us to join them by the pool. Every man there was either married or living with his girlfriend. After a few minutes the conversation turned to how the men were going to go out one night and leave their wives/SO’s at home. It will be “harmless”; it’s just “to look” and see what’s out there. Dan shoots me an awkward glance, and I have to, once again, act tough, place one hand on my hip, and say that I’ll think about whether Dan can go or not. Back in our apartment, I turn to Dan and say, “You know that you’re totally welcome to go out.” “I know,” he says, “but going out with them is probably the last thing I want to do.”
Two of our neighbors, both under the age of 35, have been married 4 times. And divorced 4 times. One has a child that he never sees. This same neighbor tells me that his live-in girlfriend has mentioned that she wants to have a baby before she turns 30, but he doesn’t think she cares if she gets married first. His girlfriend is a beautiful and smart medical student, who cooks like a dream. As he’s telling me this, I’m thinking that no woman in her right mind actually doesn’t care about getting married before having a baby. It’s just that many women’s standards here have literally hit bottom.
It’s been really amazing getting to know the mothers who bring their children to the nutritional center, where I’ve been working the last few months. They love asking me questions about life in the U.S. and how it differs from Bolivia. They’re especially fascinated with the fact that I’m married. “You mean, you’re married, but you don’t already have children?” “Are you married or are you just living together?” “You got married in a church and everything?” Apparently, it’s hard to believe that two people can go on dates, really get to know one another, learn about the true meaning of marriage, and decide to make a life-long commitment to one another. While at times their questions can make me smile, for the most part, they’re just depressing. Of the 28 moms I’ve interviewed, only one was married. The average age is 22, although several of the moms have already had 3 or 4 children. The average “highest level of education” achieved by these moms is middle school, although many cannot read or write. And, of course, they’re all poor. The moms tell me that, in their society, men are looked up to if they can have children with multiple women and still remain single. Men will usually refuse to use condoms. Of the unmarried, HIV+ women in Dan’s study, 100% say their partner(s) had refused to use condoms.
Young or old, religious or non-religious, educated or uneducated, poor or rich, Machoism pervades every level of society. The Internal Medicine attending at San Juan de Dios, a 60-year old man who we admire as a physician, jokes about telling his wife that he plans to stay out until 5 am with the beautiful female residents. Men stare at me so blatantly as I walk down the street (in scrubs, mind you) or run on the treadmill that I feel like their eyes are boring through me. A man on the micro waves and whistles at a 13-year-old girl, and then makes a disgusting remark, “mira: cafe con leche,” he says to Dan with hand gestures, referring to her skin tone and large breasts. Then, as he leaves the truffi, he hands Dan his business card: he’s a lawyer.
How can anyone think that this society can progress by making it’s women disrespected, unappreciated, second-class citizens? In fact, research in developing countries has shown that, when women are empowered and educated, the whole community benefits.
As I witness the plight of many women here, I feel so thankful that I grew up knowing and never questioning my worth and place in this world and that I could be excited about all the possibilities that the future held for me. I’m also extremely grateful to be married to a man who treasures me like a precious stone and has faith in all the beautiful things we can accomplish together. And I’m praying for a cultural revolution here in Bolivia that makes machismo extinct.