Helplessness, Hope, and a Hashtag

Some of the female patients admitted that being beaten regularly was the cause of their pain, in a rural clinic where I translated recently for visiting doctors. Indeed, I started noticing that more women than men seemed to be missing teeth, and most women complained of headaches, vision and hearing loss, or pain all over the body. While those symptoms can have other causes as well, there’s no explaining away the symptoms of the women who told me the ugly and unjust cause of their pain.

Upon returning to the city, I asked some knowledgeable friends, “What resources are available to these women? What could I have told them?” I felt that we had been irresponsibly unprepared; by not saying much at all in response to these women, we told them very clearly that their situation is expected and not solvable. Never have I so efficiently translated such clear meaning using so few words. 

My friends painted a dire picture of un-met Bolivian gender equality laws and limited programs and organizations struggling to serve women in the city. As for unemployed women in the countryside? Maybe with education things will get better… for future generations, but probably not for these specific women. They at least offered some insight on what to say: remind the woman that violence is not an acceptable part of life, and remind her of her worth, that she doesn’t deserve abuse. Realizing how narrow is the chance for hope (the best hope being in Christ, but christians, His hands and feet, often ignoring or doing harm in the name service) I finally, two days after returning from the community, let the heaviness of what I heard hit me. “God, your children are hurting your daughters down here!” I cried out. Later, with dry and sore eyes, the voice of another crying young woman echoed in my head:

“My eyes hurt.”

“When do they hurt?” asked the doctor.

“Almost all the time. I think it’s from crying everyday when my husband beats me.”

And I almost lost it again, even though I didn’t think my desert-dry eyes could have produced another tear.

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I’m creating a dance about gender and water in rural Bolivia. One inspiration is a study showing that in times of drought in Bolivia, domestic abuse increases. I struggle with how to respectfully represent the complicated realities of rural, indigenous, economically disadvantaged women who suffer domestic abuse and worry that their kids might not live through this dry season. How can I choreograph about something from which I’m so removed?

How can I make sense of women visiting a clinic, most of whom have suffered abuse? How can I, an outsider, suggest that it’s not normal? How could I, just the translator and not a doctor, suggest that perhaps there’s a better way of preparing for and handling these cases?

The #YesAllWomen reaction has encouraged me to find where I can connect. Though “not all men” are like the Isla Vista murderer or like the men who beat their wives, “Yes, all women” have dealt with misogyny, and many have now shared their daily stories using that hashtag. For example, the touch and condescending smile of a man as he walks by shows me he thinks he has the right to touch whatever woman he wants. People ask me if they can speak with the ingeniero (male engineer) in charge of the project, and answer my in-depth questions with an “Engineering 101” answer, making me feel disvalued. I’m constantly on guard to be “safe” in the city– take only reputable taxis, not walk alone at night, etc.– bluntly, avoid putting myself at higher risk of rape. Three women I know were fired because they didn’t properly revere the men in charge… and we are left having opinions regarding the decisions but not a voice, similar to some women in the communities where we have water projectsWomen more often manage the household water and know the family water needs, yet it’s mostly men who make decisions about community water systems (source). #YesAllWomen: in Bolivian communities and cities, in the U.S., and all over the world.

So in some ways, I find I do have a connection to these women’s stories. I see that the problem is not “out there”- its also around me and within me. So maybe my role starts with overcoming my own challenges, like not letting the demeaning behavior of others make me feel less worthy. Or getting the courage to speak up even when others try to discount my voice because I’m young/female/not an expert/have an accent, etc.

In response to inaction towards violence against women, part of finding my voice has been taking specific actions of preparation for the next time I translate for a medical team. I’m finding out about resources available to women in Bolivia, recommendations for domestic abuse cases, and local places for general medical referral and follow-up.

Having experiences of bringing forth my own quieted voice, and also learning to not let others’ sexist actions diminish my own sense of worth, puts me in a better place to encourage others to do the same. Where I do water projects, I can more aptly seek female voices and other suppressed opinions. I can personally connect to ideas I’m presenting on stage. I can look a woman in the eye and tell her she is valuable, and there are ways to learn about the options available to her.

#Yes all of us. All are part of ugly systems. All have had situations that seem utterly hopeless, impossible to change. But I, and all of us, can find our Hope, and then share a tiny glimmer of it with people around us.

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P1100713 In another town, women hold their project proposals for improving their own communities and their agricultural production.

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