Separate but Equal

 

Overcoming gender bias while escaping poverty requires grit and determination; it also requires support and encouragement. CI programs are helping youth better themselves and challenge gender inequalities for the good of their communities.

Mary Rose’s story by Deron Denton. Jaasiel’s story by Gina Kellogg.

Escaping an island of poverty

Like many girls growing up in the island community of Salvacion, in central Philippines, 20-year-old Mary Rose learned to weave mats out of palm leaves. The culture on the island is conservative when it comes to the way girls should behave. Women and girls are often expected to do the chores, take care of the children and weave mats.

Mary Rose, by contrast, wanted more than that. As far back as she can remember, her attitude has been that she can do anything boys can do. And so far, she has been right.

Staying afloat

“On the island, you either break a sweat or you go hungry,” Mary Rose explains, recounting an oft-repeated Salvacion mantra. She chose to break a sweat.

“My parents didn’t impose that I should only stay inside the house, helping with chores,” Mary Rose says. Instead, she worked alongside her father in agriculture and fishing, doing backbreaking work in all kinds of weather. It was work she saw only males doing.

“It was very difficult for our family to afford basic things,” she adds as context, “because we always prioritized food.” During the worst times, they would go for days with nothing to eat except for a reserve of carefully rationed sweet potatoes. Mary Rose’s sponsorship helped alleviate some of the burden.

“Children International made it possible for me to have new clothes and shoes every year,” she says. “What’s more, I also had the privilege to see the doctor and dentist.”

She also recalls the assistance her family received after Typhoon Durian in 2006. “We were helpless,” Mary Rose says. “We didn’t have money to repair our house, and we had nowhere to go. If not for the agency, we could have ended up homeless for months.” Having a sponsor, and receiving the opportunities and benefits that presented, instilled her with confidence.

Still, as Mary Rose grew older, she became increasingly fearful of never having the opportunity to leave the island – or the ocean of poverty that surrounded her. In order to make that happen, she knew she’d have to get good grades and finish her education. “It was the only thing I could think of,” she says, “that would help us improve our lives.”

“Into Employment confirmed my belief that girls can do what boys can do,” boasts Mary Rose.

A courageous crossing

Despite frequently fighting the elements just to get to school (Mary Rose had to cross the sea in a small boat that capsized on more than one occasion), her tough single-mindedness paid off. A chance at a better life presented itself when Mary Rose learned of Children International’s Into Employment program, part of our growing career readiness initiative.

Our Into Employment program showed Mary Rose that she could choose any profession – even welding.

“It was an opportunity I couldn’t miss,” she says. Without hesitation, she applied for a training course and, after being accepted, signed up for welding.

“Welding is usually a man’s job,” Mary Rose admits. “But I didn’t think twice when I enrolled for welding. I wasn’t even afraid that I might not make it through the course because of my gender. I knew I could make it.”

Welding wasn’t the only important thing Mary Rose learned from Into Employment. Life-skills classes improved her communication and other social skills. She adds that perhaps the most important lesson she learned may have been gender equality in the workplace. “Into Employment confirmed my belief that girls can do what boys can do,” she boasts.

After graduating from the program, Mary Rose landed a welding job with a large company near Manila. She works with 200 welders, 192 of whom are men. She also earns nearly three times her father’s monthly income and sends half of her salary home to her family.

Reflecting on her training as a welder, Mary Rose admits that it was very difficult. But her graduation and certification is proof of what she felt as a little girl, when she joined all the boys and men fishing and farming …

“It just goes to show that a determined woman can do everything a man can do,” she concludes. “I always had the courage, but it was the Into Employment program that provided me with the opportunity to cross seas, figuratively and literally.”

Balancing bravado

Jaasiel doesn’t think like a typical 16-year-old, much less one who has grown up in a culture in which men are encouraged to push the boundaries of bravado.

“We have to promote and value the great contributions that women make in society,” the Guatemalan youth says with conviction. “Because, behind every family … there is a woman who fights on a daily basis to provide well-being and love. That’s why it’s important for all men to support equality.”

Admittedly, the youth’s parents seem to reflect the traditional norms of his country. His mother is a homemaker, responsible for cooking daily meals over an open fire in their small home and caring for the children. His father works as a bricklayer, a job that conjures images of masculinity.

Jaasiel’s family, however, is anything but typical when it comes to avoiding stereotypes and supporting the rights of females. “Ever since I was a young boy, my parents taught me that men, as well as women, have the same rights,” he boldly claims.

An example of equality

“My mom,” Jaasiel says with obvious admiration, “has instilled in me the importance of gender equality, because she has shown me that women are strong and brave. And my dad, by his example, has taught me to be respectful.”

The young man, who often helps out with household chores, recognizes that most Guatemalans don’t share his family’s beliefs. “In this society, because our ancestors have been and continue to be machista, for a man to treat a woman with too much respect or as an equal is a sign of weakness, like cowardice,” he acknowledges. He says others also irrationally maintain a point of view that “if a man is sensitive or has a social conscience and does activities that are generally done by women, he’s seen as weak.”

With such negative perceptions all around him, you might expect Jaasiel to keep his opinions to himself. Instead, he tries to change others’ views. He cites the day he inquired whether his friend’s sister was going to start attending school the next year. His friend’s father became enraged, calling Jaasiel a “busybody” and telling him it wasn’t any of his business.

Helping out by performing household chores is one way Jaasiel defies sterotypes in Guatemala.

“His sister never did go to school,” Jaasiel adds. “I have seen her helping her mom wash clothes and take care of the kids. It’s sad, but it’s a reality that will change someday, but it won’t happen quickly.”

Jaasiel believes men have equal responsibilities to women, as well as women having equal rights to men.

The peer pressure of apathy

Even among his peers, Jaasiel sees a wall of indifference. When he suggested integrating the sexes during group activities at school, his classmates refused. “Their reasoning, curiously, was the same,” Jaasiel says. “The men said that you can’t trust women, and the women said you can’t trust men – they don’t work, they aren’t responsible with their schoolwork, etc.”

He isn’t giving up, though, because he’s seen how fellow teens in Children International’s programs have adjusted their attitudes. “All CI’s programs have shown me that women and men have the same abilities and that they deserve the same opportunities,” he explains.

Jaasiel points specifically to the subject of leadership and, in particular, the Youth Health Corps (YHC). “It’s more than just a group,” he says. “All of us youth are like a family. I have learned, for example, the right to health is a right for men and women, and that mutual well-being is the well-being of society.” He says YHC has also helped him express his opinions and feelings. “And the women learn that they have the right to decide their own lives, to plan a family, to change cultural traditions.” It may take time, he admits, but “little by little, we can change the way some families think.”

Photos and reporting assistance by Ed Uy Jr. and Javier Cárcamo.