[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
Women from Canada and the United States working in international assignments live with one foot in two worlds. Aware of and impacted by the cultural realities and gender dynamics of their country of service and their sending country, they navigate implementing a programmatic lens rooted in a North American perspective and a daily reality shaped by their country of service. This past year, with long-overdue attention paid to questions of sexual violence and gender discrimination in the United States
and elsewhere, women from the U.S. and Canada serving globally with MCC arguably felt these tensions more acutely than ever.
Women from Canada and the United States working in international assignments live with one foot in two worlds.
In the U.S., Canada, Europe and beyond, a groundswell of activism has brought renewed attention to sexual harassment and discrimination, unequal pay and lack of equal respect for women in the work place. #MeToo has become synonymous with a new movement of women’s empowerment. Yet many MCC workers live in contexts in which the concept of a hashtag is just as unfamiliar as the sentiment behind it. How can women serving with MCC globally who care deeply about the importance of working for greater gender equity in the United States and Canada appropriately address these issues in the societies in which they work?
Over the past decade, MCC has worked to improve how MCC and its partners incorporate gender analysis into planning and implementing projects. When partners plan a new food security, education, peacebuilding, disaster response or health project, MCC staff work with them to ask how women and girls are considered in the process and how
gender dynamics more broadly are accounted for. During the design phase of a recent education project in Mozambique, project planners asked: How is the quality of education in this context different for boys and girls? By asking that question, they found that
Children, as well as teachers and administrators, bring their own early socialization into the education process. Frequently, girls are raised not to value themselves highly, and without a sense of the basic human rights to which they are entitled. Boys may not question traditional gender roles that reinforce notions of male dominance and which may influence gender relations throughout the life cycle. Discrimination against girls during adolescence can reduce their readiness and ability to participate and learn, and results in fewer opportunities for them to develop to their full potential.
The project in Mozambique will work to address some of these discrepancies in education that begin in childhood when girls are taught to undervalue themselves. Designing project activities in a way that incorporates rigorous gender analysis presses MCC and its partners to look more closely at how a society’s gender norms shape daily realities for women and girls as well as men and boys.
While MCC has prioritized the incorporation of gender analysis into project planning, women in intercultural service with MCC do not have a clear-cut guide for how to navigate gender discrimination they may face during their terms of service. To be sure, women in the United States and Canada face specific forms of discrimination and navigate patriarchal systems every day. When these women enter new cultural contexts for service, they in turn must navigate different patriarchal systems with their own specific forms of discrimination.
“Women in MCC service often hold dual identities, carrying with themselves concern and passion for renewed movements against sexist discrimination in the United States and Canada, while also navigating new forms of
sexism in their contexts of service.”
In Burkina Faso, the country in which I serve, women arguably enjoy a relative degree of empowerment in comparison to women in many other African contexts. Women serve in the police and top governmental positions, while gender equality is protected under the country’s constitution. Day-to-day life, however, tells a different story. Women farmers, for example, are expected to work in the field all day and then return home to fulfill their other obligations of child rearing, wood gathering and water collecting. Men, on the other hand, can typically relax when not at work.
As MCC’s co-representative for Burkina Faso (together with my husband), I routinely encounter paternalistic attitudes and discriminatory assumptions about my abilities, though obviously to a lesser degree than Burkinabe women working in the fields. While my husband was granted immediate respect from our male project partners, I had to work to earn it. [Of course, women working in the United States and Canada can also face discriminatory expectations in the workplace!] In the beginning, partners would address all questions and concerns to my spouse, assuming he was the ultimate decision maker. Partners expressed surprise that I had the strength and endurance of a man to drive long distances over rough roads to visit them in their villages. After the birth of our third daughter during our term, many friends and colleagues in partner organizations assumed that we would continue to have children until we got a son. No MCC gender tool exists that helps women in intercultural service within MCC to navigate cultural assumptions around gender and the corresponding expectations and challenges women in service face.
Recently our office helped to facilitate a training for farmers about conservation agriculture. Because MCC is working to integrate gender analysis across programming, we dedicated a session to addressing how gender roles and expectations in Burkinabe society shape how an effective conservation agriculture project should be constructed. Together with MCC’s conservation agriculture technical officer, I facilitated the session.
We divided the men and women farmers into two groups to allow for candid conversation before coming back together. The women immediately bonded over discussing their extra responsibilities beyond working in the fields. “Why do our husbands get to come home and relax?” “They have no idea what it’s like to work with a baby strapped to their backs.” They said they had never discussed these topics with their husbands because challenging these expectations is not a realistic option. Men are the
traditional “chiefs” of the home.
Back in the plenary session, the women shared with the mixed group what we had discussed. Empowered by their collective voice, they led the conversation about the unfairness they experience. It was a lively discussion handled well by the men. So much so that the women felt comfortable enough to bring up the topic of their social obligation of plowing the fields while wearing dresses and coiffed hair, while men are allowed more comfortable and practical attire. Men acknowledged the major roles women play in a successful harvest and in managing the home. Participants discussed how women could potentially be given a more equitable share of decision making power in household and farming decisions, given the significant roles they play.
Women in intercultural service with MCC encounter many of the same patriarchal and discriminatory attitudes that women where they serve experience. At the same time, the #MeToo movement reminds us that women in the countries of the global North experience other forms of patriarchal discrimination. Women in MCC service often hold dual identities, carrying with themselves concern and passion for renewed movements against sexist discrimination in the United States and Canada, while also navigating new forms of sexism in their contexts of service. In holding these dual identities together, women in intercultural service have opportunities to make connections between different forms of sexist discrimination and to work for a future of empowerment and equality for women everywhere.
Sarah Sensamaust is MCC Burkina Faso co-representative.