To Be a Woman on the Island

By Mariana Sanz de Santamaría - Contributor

Photos Courtesy of Mariana Sanz de Santamaría

Photos Courtesy of Mariana Sanz de Santamaría

I’d never faced being a woman as much as on this island. I’ve been living in the town of Barú for a year and a half as a teacher with the Teach for Colombia program (Enseña por Colombia). This is the first time in my privileged and comfortable city life that I’ve questioned my abilities and truly felt limited just for being a woman.

To give a bit of context, Barú is an Afro-descendant town on the tip of the island of Barú south of Cartagena. It’s surrounded by the most beautiful beaches in the country, hotels, condominiums, and private recreational houses. It’s one of the most important tourist corridors, where the most powerful and wealthy people in the country enter and leave. However, the local community has a history of resistance that constantly clashes with the social inequality that surrounds it and the many interests that converge in this territory. There’s no aqueduct, sewage system, health post, Internet, access road or state institutions, and there’s only one school that works with serious resource difficulties to educate more than 700 students. In this complex social framework, there’s a community whose memory and identity has been distorted by the influence of external actors being victims of state abandonment, discrimination, segregation, machismo, and welfarism, conditions that have forged many disorderly values.

In addition to all these difficulties of context, here, I’ve had to deal with being a woman. “Deal,” yes, because it has turned out to be more of an obstacle than a characteristic like any other. Here, my feminism has transcended theory, hypothetical cases, networks, and collective indignation. Here, my feminism has stopped being of specific moments or discussions. Here, I do not preach or just defend it; Here I live feminism, I understand it in much more profound ways.

Being a teacher, regardless of your gender, is difficult. The value and remuneration of this work are inversely proportional to its importance. I arrived with the anguish that I would be the teacher of almost 400 students, that I would have to know how to manage my time very well to plan practical classes for numerous, heated classrooms, with complicated kids and to learn to be infinitely resourceful and creative. I didn’t think that being a woman would mean more difficulty in my teaching work.

The first day of class, I entered the 10th grade; a room of 58 students. I, small, white, young, and cachaca (from Bogotá) aspired to be the new group director. After almost 15 minutes of asking them to sit down, they gave me their attention and their silence; I introduced myself, they introduced themselves, and one of them said to me "Let’s, see how much you’re going to last. The ladies who come don’t last." The women teachers here are "ma'am" and the men "professor," as if we were only ladies, without the status of teachers.

I realized that every time a male teacher entered the classroom, students suddenly became quieter, sat better, and listened with more respect. My daily frustration to achieve classroom control wasn’t comparable to that of a male teacher. It’s not that they deliver it all, but their authority when entering a room is significantly more remarkable. The general response of students to any instruction I give in class is of rejection, "so what?" "Why?" "I'm not gonna do that" "I don’t do what you tell me, you're not my ma." For them, we have no authority, even though most of the teaching staff are women. My classroom control, I understood then, would need an extra effort not only because of the difficulty of the behavior of the students but because of being a woman.

In the village, gender roles are deeply marked. Women birth children, raise them, cook, and do the cleaning, while men work on the beach, in the hotels or nearby houses. They provide for the home and then stay until late at bars. This is, of course, a generalization for which there are exceptions; some women also work or look for money in some way and don’t depend so much on men economically, but those are the minority. However, the barulera woman is strong. She’s fierce. In the mornings, for example, some leave with three or four empty water tanks to fill them in the nearby wells and some of them push the wheelbarrow back to their houses with the tanks full of water. They talk loud, shout, and fight with loose fists like the men. Despite that apparent strength, they’re deeply vulnerable. The cases of sexual abuse are daily, normalized, and unpunished. Many are unconsciously subject to the will of men and the defense and emancipation mechanisms that they have are extremely few.

The 15 minutes before the end of the school day have been significant to realize this. Students should clean their classroom before going home, and I usually schedule a time to divide that task amongst all. The job is divided "equally"; boys arrange the chairs in rows while the girls are the ones who go sweep, collect, and throw away the garbage. It’s been a challenge to get the boys to even fix the chairs, many refuse because they can’t fathom the idea that they have a responsibility to organize or clean something. I’ve tried this year and a half to alternate these tasks and to normalize the idea that boys can also sweep. With this, I’ve encountered many discussions that have ended in curses and insults by the students because they feel humiliated when I -a woman- asks them to sweep. The girls, on the other hand, automatically go out for the broom, clean, and fight with the boys, not because they won't help, but because they continue to throw garbage while they’re sweeping. Today, with pride, I can say that they do question this a little more.

In recess, for example, the only courtyard of the school is dominated by boys. Only they can play soccer. Girls don’t have the option unless a teacher comes and gives the order to allow them to play. And in the classroom, academic performance is obviously uneven. Girls are, for the most part, much more applied and responsible than boys. In turn, many times, they’re the ones who do their homework while boys play with their phones or are out of the classroom with friends. There’s a general acceptance of the service of women to men.

During the first months, the cases of pregnant girls wouldn’t let me sleep. Seeing little girls abandoning their childhoods, walking with their uniforms, carrying a belly, shook me. Last year we had 15 cases. They’re 15 girls whose lives were conditioned by these pregnancies. Making it difficult for them, or for many impossible, to study, to overcome their socio-economic conditions, that of their families and, in general, to have a life project of their own. These obstacles are not felt by the boys -or men- who got these girls pregnant. They, on the other hand, demonstrated their masculinity by doing this. The words “ese no vale preña” are a common insult that refers to a man that isn’t worth getting a woman pregnant. Getting women pregnant is an act of domination, of strength, of manhood.

Naturally, a high percentage of these pregnancies are the result of abuse. One morning this year, I found a teacher crying. Her third-grade student had told her how she had been raped at home. I cried with her. From the school, we started the route of protection, and because the perpetrator was a recognized man in the community, the case ended up becoming a piece of gossip in town. For the first time a legal case was opened, something moved in this town where nobody or anything arrives because it was not the first case, neither of him nor in the community.

After this case, copious allegations of abuse began, because they realized, on the one hand, that touching or abusing girls was wrong and on the other that maybe something would happen if they denounced. It’s so common that in class more than once I’ve had to separate -by force- primary school children who take girls to kiss or touch them. Primary school. Some girls just stand still, others hit them back.

Now, who am I to tell the students what is “right” and what is “wrong?” What is my authority to question their actions? How much of it is cultural? How much of it is ignorance? In general, there’s a belief, of course an absolutely racist belief, that “Afros” are a very physical and sexual ethnic group. Students have kinesthetic learning at school and need to move and use the body to express themselves and learn. However, I refuse to accept that this justifies these acts. I’ve been cautious, in spite of my deep indignation and sadness, not to say or do anything passionately, but to listen. Listen to understand the causes and profound reasons for these situations.

Last year, with 10th and 11th graders, I started doing some workshops outside of school about feminism, menstrual education, and sexual and reproductive rights. I even got the support of Bloom Cup, a company that donated menstrual cups.

I realized with the girls, their ignorance about their own bodies, sexuality, and femininity. Even girls who were already moms. They told me about their fears, the myths they believed about pregnancy, sex, the menstrual cycle, and female anatomy. This space allowed them to open up and speak with more confidence. I understood the need to open up these spaces for dialogue, to listen to them and to talk to them, not from the role of teacher but of advisor. Since then I’ve looked for spaces inside and outside the school to empower them, to talk about feminism, abortion, sexual abuse and their vulnerability as black young women, but the workload in school, as in most public schools of the country, has not allowed me to truly open these spaces.

Living this, so close, so raw and so real has revealed very clearly my privileges and how, undoubtedly, the feminist struggle is different for each group, and not for that reason less critical or legitimate. Until now, my greatest afflictions had been multiple street harassments and micro-machismos that are even difficult to identify. Here, accustomed to standing in privileged feminism, I’ve been able to step into the urgent feminism, and fight for issues that sometimes from the capital of the country seem solved. They’re not. Here I legitimize these issues because I see them and live them. And my biggest lesson of feminism has been given to me by the kids, who don’t even know well -yet- what feminism is.

Perhaps being a woman is the reason I'm here. Thanks to the fact that I’m a woman, not despite it, my work here has value. The island has confirmed to me, loud and clear, that this thing of feminism is worth it.

*This piece is also available in Spanish, click here to read it.