In times of crisis, women’s projects go beyond creative solutions to survival strategies for themselves and their families.
Members of the community of Yorkin, on a canoe of the STIBRAWPA association. Photo used with permission from https://enstibrawpayorkin.wordpress.com/images/
As I thought and typed about this week’s post, I went back to my books about development, specifically about women in Central America and the US. In guatemaltecas: the Women’s Movement 1986-2003, Susan A. Berger documents the work of women in Guatemala to not only defend their families and livelihoods during the civil war and beyond, but also to organize as a movement to promote positive social change for all. Berger points out that during times of economic or political crisis, when men might leave for new opportunities or become sick or be killed, gender roles shift and women are left with more and more responsibility for protecting, providing, and getting their families and communities through the crisis. She also shows that in Guatemala, “economic hardships required women to seek survival in non-traditional ways…” (p. 23). This means they went beyond being caregivers to also bringing income into the family, or becoming leaders in the church, or defending the human rights of those killed or disappeared in the war, or organizing for political change.
These examples show some different levels of creative response to a crisis on the part of women, all of them involving stepping beyond their traditional role as family caregiver: bringing in income, being community leaders, and organizing with others to defend the vulnerable and seek lasting change. I met a number of groups in Costa Rica that have been doing these same things for decades now, responding to crises of economic oppression, political neglect, and natural disasters with creative projects.
Making and serving food is often a big way that women have visibly responded to a crisis: providing food aid, or starting a restaurant or food service, or sharing recipes with others. Here, the restaurant of the Posada Rural La Amistad on Chira Island.
The first time that I visited the Rural Posada La Amistad on Chira Island in Costa Rica, with my colleagues and students, I was along for the ride, literally. It was my first time being the sociology professor in the Field Program, and I as I drove the 14-passenger van into the gravel parking lot of a home on the coast, in order to board a boat to cross the Gulf of Nicoya, in order to catch the island bus to the cabins, I had no idea what to expect. Over the course of a number of semesters visiting this project, we toured the mangroves with women who used to make a living from harvesting clams from the mangroves, and we learned about the intense personal and social transformation that occurred when they started this project.
The women of La Amistad tell about the past, when their husbands would force them to go out fishing with them, sitting in the boats and mending the nets, not permitted to even look up at the other wives in the nearby boats. This, until the women decided to start staying on land and meeting together under a tree to start thinking together about their own projects.
And now, the women of this island are leading the charge in terms of protecting the island nature and culture on behalf of everyone. In the past, the men were the main providers for the families, but in recent decades the women have learned about rural community tourism, and since the decline of fishing as a profitable activity, it is the women who carry out a large economic activity on the island: sharing their culture with tourists who, like me, don’t really know what they are getting themselves into. These women formed an association to promote their work, and received funds to build their cabins, called the Posada Rural La Amistad (Friendship Rural Haven). They have also received training and carry out campaigns on protecting their island from forest fires and from overfishing.
The protected mangrove area, organized by women on Chira Island.
Another similar project is taking place in the Bribri indigenous territory in the Southern Caribbean of Costa Rica. The women of the STIBRAWPA association became the employers of their husbands and sons when they took on their rural community tourism project, which brings tourists up the Yorkín river in hand-hewn canoes to learn about roof thatching and chocolate making. The women started this project (as did many other women in rural areas around the world) when it became apparent that their export agriculture (in this case of cacao) was in crisis due to global market changes. But due to the pandemic, STIBRAWPA is again in crisis, and has turned to their community agriculture for food security.
Cassava, manioc, yuca. Call it what you want, but this tuber is a staple in Southern Costa Rica and in the community of Yorkín.
I thought of these women as I was reflecting on this past week, a week that had a theme for me. I was left thinking about our current crises: a global pandemic, racial unrest, political polarization, climate change, and an economic system that is not providing for the most vulnerable. I started wondering what is going on with the women around me: what creative ways are they finding to confront these crises? Multiple times each day one idea kept coming back, again and again, as if to remind and encourage me that I have something to offer, and that I can work with others to figure out a way forward in challenging times: women have persevered during times of crisis and have found creative outlets that help their families and make huge impacts on the world.
Of course, the eyes of our country were on the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week, and it was upon reflecting on her contribution that all of the other thoughts starting connecting in my brain, like my grandmother’s cross-stitch projects suddenly revealing their colorful portraits. RBG worked so hard on so many cases that recognized the human rights of women in our country, rights that my grandmothers got to, and my mother and sisters and I get to enjoy.
As I watched the RBG documentary this past week, and also her memorial service, I was struck by how Justice Ginsburg herself built her legal career on her own personal experience, becoming a champion for women after she herself was unable to find a job in any New York law firm, despite graduating first in her Columbia Law School class. She organized herself in a crisis, and brought case after thoughtfully reasoned case to the Supreme Court to recognize women’s rights.
And so I was left thinking about women who respond to the challenges of their daily lives with creative ideas. And as they organize their thoughts and actions, new solutions and new paths forward become apparent for them, and for their families and communities. Of course these challenges are not just symptoms of the individual lives of these women, but very often (always?) represent larger challenges and social crises that are affecting many. Today for example, during the coronavirus pandemic, many are having trouble accessing food. The community and backyard gardens that people are tending are providing much needed food as in the United States 25% of white families with children and 40% of black families with children report being food insecure. This is reportedly double the percentage from before the pandemic.
I am sure that you can think of many women who are doing creative projects right now, attending to the current crisis, projects that are making life better for their families and for the world. You may be one of those women. Maybe you are harnessing your cooking skills and sharing ideas with people who are having trouble thinking of recipes to make while confined to their homes, like my friend Pri in Costa Rica. Or maybe you are processing your emotional pain from the death or illness of a loved one, like my friend Malini in Indiana. Maybe you think your project is mostly for yourself, but I can tell you now, you will find that your project to make food or start a business or make a film or demand a political change will be just the thing to help another person make it through the day, and perhaps even to create lasting change.
Arroz con palmito (rice with heart of palm), a recipe shared by my friend Pri at Asi Comemos en Casa on Instagram. Photo used with permission.
Finally, I want to recognize a few other women I have met recently: my Spanish language students at Indiana University Northwest. Due to the pandemic, we are working together online this semester, and when students turn in voice recordings of themselves speaking Spanish, I am hearing children in the background, and PBS Kids programs, darks parking and people talking. These students are taking on the challenge of a college education, dedicating time and brain-power to a project that will bear fruit for them and for their families and communities.
In my first semester teaching at IUN one of my best students was a grandmother who was majoring in accounting and working full-time in addition to her school, but who was taking Spanish for fun, paying for classes with her own money because she loved Spanish. When the pandemic hit, I lost touch with her, likely because her accounting degree (she was so close to graduation!) had to take precedence, as well as her job and her children and grandchildren, whose schools were closed, etc etc. If you ever find this post, TH, write me and let me know how you’re doing!
I am thinking of all of these mothers and grandmothers right now. I KNOW that women are bearing a large burden during this pandemic. I also KNOW that their brains are working, and they are trying ideas, perfecting talents, helping their families and organizing in their communities, even in this most difficult moment in history. Let’s pay attention to these projects, as they will most likely lead us into the future. My fervent hope is that these same women (Me! You! Us!) can also organize with other women and men to struggle for lasting change that will prevent such crises in the future.
If you would like to support the women of STIBRAWPA during the pandemic, when tourism income is non-existent, you may donate here. If you would like to support students of Indiana University Northwest through the IU Foundation you may do so here.