“You look like a girl, but you are doing man’s work. You are digging in the ground and painting the walls, so you must be a boy…. but a pretty boy.”
This was a comment made to me by a child because of my clothing. It can be very easy to judge this child because of his question which innocently stems from his education and culture. This is why it is important to understand the context of the society in which this child was born.
During our 4-month project period in Mozambique, one of the many projects we worked on was a primary school in the town of Chimoio called “Centro Aberto Nhamatsane.” This primary school is called a community school because it belongs directly to the community. Specifically, this school is under the care and supervision of community member, Inacio.
In Mozambique, pre-school and primary schools are not given government funding. Despite a lack of funding, Inacio doesn’t charge families to send their children. The average age of the students is between two and five years old. Most of the school’s staff members work as volunteers.
In order to help Inacio and the school to develop, our team did some online fundraising and got our hands dirty by helping improve the school’s physical appearance through: rebuilding walls; painting and decorating classrooms; painting the outside of the school and principal’s office; and creating a playground for the children in the garden.
One particular day, I was in the garden working on building the playground with my teammate, Juan David. I was taking a moment to rest when a child around 7 years approached me and asked if I was a man or a woman. My first reaction was to try to understand why he was so concerned about that. So, I asked him why he was asking that. His answer was, “because you look like a girl, but you are doing man’s work. You are digging in the ground and painting the walls, so you must be a boy…. but a pretty boy.”
I realized that for this child, the concept of gender was based on the actions you do as a person. For this small child, it was an honest question. If you are a girl, why are you doing the work of a man? Why are you not doing the same work as all the women that I know?
According to the World Health Organization, “gender refers to the social concepts of the functions, behaviors, activities and attributes that each society considers specific for men and women.” As our versions of gender differ from society to society, our first reaction is to judge the way some cultures are living.
From my experience in Mozambique, I realized that being a woman in a rural area meant they are in charge of the house. They have to take care of the kids, clean the house, take care of their husband, cook for everybody, and not speak out very often. Outside of the home, the only career path for these women is small-scale farming. This is extremely different from the role of women in my own society, Colombia. We have the privilege of deciding what to study, our career path, and if we want to be married or stay single. Based on what we experience in our own societies, it can be hard to imagine sometimes that in this century this is still the role for some women.
It’s very easy to judge this child’s question along with this child’s education and culture. Instead, we should try to understand the context of his society. In development work, you cannot impose your beliefs on others or the way they live. We can give them options and ask questions. We can explain to this small child that a woman can work, paint the walls, dig in the ground or work with cement.
Like many countries, Mozambique’s law states that men and women have the same rights and obligations. However, we are well aware that decreeing equality in law is not enough if it is not a fact in practice. For this to happen, equality must be translated into real and effective opportunities such as: going to school; accessing a job, health services and social security; enjoying the freedom to choose a partner and raise a family or not; and participate in the affairs of our communities, organizations and political parties.
Written by: Estefania de Garay Caballero (México) - June Team 2019