Not Just Any Other Day
I walked into the well-lit, freshly-painted office building -- late, as expected. This was the custom in the Dominican Republic; meetings always started late. As I entered, I wiped the mud from my shoes; it had been raining all day in the little village where I worked. A small knot of women in faded dresses and flip-flops was huddled in the center of a large meeting room. Maybe I had pushed the lateness thing too far, I thought, because they were waiting for me.
I had been asked by the local women's club to speak on a panel for International Women's Day 1991. When I was first approached to speak, I hesitated. This would not be a discussion about AIDS awareness or planning a community project. I would have to say something about life, about women, about who we are and what we could become. During my past year in the village, I had been humbled by the harsh conditions around me and the grace with which people managed to live. Families worked three harvests a year in the nearby rice fields, nurtured supportive relationships with their families and neighbors, and most kept three or four sources of income flowing into the household. Who was I to speak to them about life or who they were? I decided my talk would have to be a discussion in which the women themselves would rely on their innate wisdom and worth.
It was a surprise to me that the women's club was acknowledging International Women's Day. The women in the club usually came together to be social, to trade sewing tips, to escape from the everyday events of the household. They were not politically active and did not identify themselves as a subordinate or marginalized group because they were women. My guess was that I had been asked to speak that day because I was a somewhat exotic americana, not because I was a woman.
My first glance into the meeting room told me my instincts were correct. All of the other panelists for the day were men. Although I knew that in the Dominican Republic men were viewed as the ones who spoke with and for authority, it was still a shock. This was International Women's Day! The day was set aside to celebrate women and our accomplishments. I was filled with a new sense of purpose as I walked to the front of the room.
When it was the americana's turn to speak, I asked the women in the audience to list all the essentials of life, things we all need as human beings to survive. The responses came at a rapid-fire pace: good health, shelter, food, water, children and family, clothing, medicine, education. The list went on until the poster board I was writing on was full.
Next, we circled in red the items on the list for which women in the Dominican Republic were responsible. The answers this time came more slowly. The first person to respond said that women in the Dominican Republic were responsible for caring for children and families. Another hand went up to point out that women collect water every day for drinking, cleaning, bathing, and cooking. We realized that women also are responsible for keeping the family healthy and getting medicine when someone is sick. Women also make sure that homework is done and that children are in school every day. Meals, clothing, and cleaning and maintenance of the home are also under the responsibility of women. We continued to circle items on the list until every single suggestion on the poster board was surrounded by red. The air in the room became thick with stunned silence.
I felt exhilarated and a little dazed by the enormity of our conclusion. All the items on the list were the responsibility of the women sitting in the room. Women were making daily decisions and carrying out responsibilities that were nothing less than essential to life. They were essential to life! Our list, cheerful with bright red circles, affirmed this.
As in societies and cultures everywhere, men and women in the Dominican Republic share in the responsibilities for their families, communities, and country. The difference is that women are seldom acknowledged, celebrated, or rewarded for their contributions. The women in the audience felt this lack of appreciation every day as they ate last, after their husbands and children, and rarely, if ever, shared a meal at the same table as their spouses. Instead, they sat in the kitchen at the back of the house, taking quick mouthfuls of food in between serving and cleaning up after the others. Many of the women in the audience also were raising children conceived by their husbands outside their marriage. And many had been put down or ignored all their lives. Who, after all, was the boss? Who, after all, was important?
One of the women in the audience that day was Gloria, who worked two jobs as a nurse and traveled forty kilometers in the back of a pick-up truck for one of her jobs. She also swept and mopped her house each day, raised a young son, and helped cultivate bananas, plantains, and cocoa for additional income. When the community needed help raising money to build a school, Gloria organized collections in the local church and raised more than $300 for the project.
Idaylia, who was also there that day, had a disabled left foot, yet still started each day by collecting water for her family. This meant at least three trips to and from the village's water hole, which was a quarter-mile from her house. She carried the water in a five-gallon can on top of her head and, even with her limp, she barely spilled a drop.
The silence in the room was beginning to soften. Someone giggled. Someone else spoke. Soon everyone in the audience was talking excitedly, telling jokes, and laughing, including the men on the panel. It was thrilling to watch the light shine in the women's eyes and to see it reflected and multiplied among them. It was as though they all had been a team running a relay and had just found out they had won first place. We loudly applauded ourselves and sailed out of the meeting room feeling giddy, buoyant, joyous.
The rush of pride and sense of awareness I shared with the women that afternoon comes back to me at different times during my life today. I think of it when I need a reminder of how human beings everywhere contribute each day to the well-being of our world. This happens whether we are recognized for it or not. This lesson is one of the many gifts given to me while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic.
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