Posted by: Lydia | September 8, 2010


Sometimes I forget that part of doing development work in the Dominican Republic is having your and your colleagues’ opinions and offers of assistance rejected solely because you are female.

Today the president of the farmer’s association with which we work most closely announced during our weekly meeting that he wanted Matthew to oversee the group’s quality control committee (or, more hilariously grandiose in Spanish, “Comité de Vigilancia”), and explicitly stated that he wanted neither me nor Claire (the third volunteer that works with this group) to give any input whatsoever. Despite working alongside this group’s farmers for months, giving technical lectures, and translating their United Nations grant contract into language they can understand, Claire and I are still less capable than my husband of telling someone how to plant a tree. It would be one thing if we were working in a culture that had some kind of deep seated belief that allowing women in the field would cause irreparable harm to the crops, but no… our dear Presidente is more than happy for Claire and me to break our backs laboring in the tree nursery, but god forbid we take it upon ourselves to do the job we were solicited for and give advice.

Back in the United States, I never encountered sexism in my professional life, probably because I worked in a female dominated field. My Peace Corps recruiter warned me that if I worked in a Latin American country, I would likely have my opinions either given less value than those of my husband’s, if not completely discounted. I suppose I was lulled into a false sense of security (and success) during my first six months here because I experienced (to my great surprise) no male chauvinism directed at me…. but perhaps now that we are thought of as a part of the community I can have my skills and contributions treated like garbage just like those of the other (two) women in the group. Hooray for assimilation.

Fortunately our dear leader seems (for now) to be the highly unpleasant exception to the other farmers here. I am treated with respect by the men of the community, and can even convince a group of teenage boys to uncomplainingly pick up trash. However, sometimes I wonder how much of that has to do with my being the wife of a respected foreigner who is a good head taller than everyone else in town. Claire has a much more difficult time corralling people into meetings in her village, likely because she is a young single female. I hate to think that so much of my success in getting people to work with me in my community is riding in on Matthew’s coattails, but I have a feeling that I wouldn’t have nearly the kind of traction I do now were I a single gringa. After all, Matthew was recently informed that I was still a girl, not a woman, because I hadn’t yet had children. Does that mean I would be treated as one were I not married?

I have to remember this situation every time I feel happy that I am given a more comfortable seat on the guagua or relieved of carrying a heavy load because I am female. Temporary physical comfort is not worth the pain of being treated like a child.


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