Women living as ‘human pack horses’
No matter where you go in Jalapa, no matter where you look, you see them.
Dressed in their traditional skirts and aprons, the Xinca women trudge the cratered and dusty roads of the Jalapa mountains in Guatemala.
Water carried in jars upon their heads, child in tow, food in one arm or on their backs. The roads are steep. Uneven. Unpaved. Even short distances are an ordeal.
“Many of the women in Jalapa live as human packhorses, carrying things up and down them mountain all day,” said Ted van der Zalm of the Niagara-based charity Wells of Hope which operates in Jalapa. “There are often no other options for them.”
The choice for these women is stark and simple: Spend their days hauling water and food upon their backs, or perish.
“Every day for these woman is hard. Day in, day out, every day of the year,” said Siobhan Eastman, a nurse from Beamsville who for nearly a decade has been working in health clinics in Guatemala. Eastman does not work in the Jalapa region, but says the plight of women is the same all over the small central American nation.
“It wears them down not just physically but emotionally and mentally. Often the women we see are just totally beaten down.”
Girls start down this road by the time they are seven years old, carrying water and food on their heads — an act that eventually warps their spines, said Eastman. Often girls start having children at the age of 14, and will never travel far from their mountain homes.
Education is limited to primary school and job opportunities are nearly non-existent.
Change, however small and however slow, has crept into the quite communities of Jalapa.
And Niagara women are helping them.
“We’re seeing pockets of women starting to organize, coming together to try and change things,” said Loisann Hauer, a St. Catharines based expert on leadership and organization who is working with Wells of Hope to develop their women’s programing in Guatemala.
“It is not easy for them because it’s a very patriarchal culture and the men actively resist it, but there are pockets of change. We are trying to work with these women specifically because they are already organizing themselves,” Hauer said.
When Wells of Hope first began working Jalapa, it was to sink wells because of the dire lack of clean water in the region. As time went on, however, Jalapa residents began asking for other kinds of aid – help building a home, repairing a school, teaching English to children, or just finding food, shoes or a job.
Among those asking for help were women trying to get out of the cycle of poverty that has defined their lives.
Women like Ipolita, who came to see Miriam van der Zalam, Ted van der Zalm’s wife who co-operates the charity in Guatemala, at the Wells of Hope compound in Jalapa.
She originally came looking for help for a neighbour – a woman who had broken her leg and could no longer provide for her family. In a country without medical or social support, the woman was in dire straights.
From that initial contact, Ipolita and Miriam became closer, and what grew from their discussions was a plan to help the women of Jalapa help themselves.
Ipolita, along with four other Xinca women, tend a small vegetable farm at the Wells of Hope compound. They are paid by the organization and can sell the food at market for a little extra income.
“Life is very hard life for women here,” Ipolita said. “We have no choice but to work hard every day.”
Women could come down from the mountain and seek jobs in the town of Jalapa, or even Guatemala City some three hours away. But opportunities are scarce.
“There are not many jobs and there is real discrimination against us,” said Ipolita, referring to an open prejudice against aboriginal people of the country, including the Xinca.
Ipolita, who organized the other women to work at Wells of Hope, said it can be difficult for women to earn their own incomes because of pressure from men. But that didn’t stop her.
“Of course the women have to organize everything,” Ipolita said. “The men are too selfish.”
Miriam van der Zalm has also established a sewing program for women in Jalapa, and other fledgling efforts to improve their skills are underway. She says the aim has to be to empower the women by giving them skills to help themselves.
If things are to change in Jalapa, the women who live there have to be able to change it themselves. Handouts won’t help in the long term.
Hauer said while the gender roles in Jalapa may be enforced by the weight of culture and time, they are not as simplistic as they appear on the surface.
If women are expected to birth children and take care of the home – with the hard daily labour that comes with it – then the men are expected to provide for his family. He tends the meagre crops, makes mud bricks for homes he will also build, and bring in what income in possible.
That responsibility, Hauer said, comes with a darker side.
Guatemala is a profoundly Catholic nation, particular in the rural areas like Jalapa where faith is as much a part of life as carrying water along the mountain roads. The church’s long held opposition to contraception is taken seriously.
“So there isn’t much birth control,” Hauer said. “And families can get quite large. We’re talking six or seven children and it can reach a point where the men are unable to provide for them.”
Such is the social pressure in a place like Jalapa that a man who cannot provide for his family is regarded as an abject failure — in his eyes as well as the community’s.
“So if you had a woman who, for instance, was bringing in most of the money, what does that say about the man?” Hauer said.
Faced with too many children to feed and clothe, in an economic environment with few real opportunities, many Jalapan men fall prey to depression.
Some flee from their families. Single mothers left to care for large families is common in the mountains. Miriam van der Zalm said she knows of a case where a man choose to live in the hopeless limbo of the Jalapa garbage dump rather than attempt to support his wife and six children.
Other men, said Hauer, make another, more permanent choice.
“The rate of suicide among Jalapan men is very high,” she said.
But whether it be from abandonment or death, many women are left to fend for themselves, and their children, relying on the support from their extended families to survive.
Still, Hauer said given the inflexible nature of gender roles in Jalapa, the Wells of Hope women’s programs are focused mostly on single women who have yet to have children because they have more options.
“We have done some work with women who are married, but it is more difficult for them because there can be real push back from their husbands,” she said. “It is a little easier when we are talking about women who aren’t married.”
Wells of Hope
Wells of Hope is a Niagara-based NGO that sinks wells in the water starved Jalapa region of Guatemala. It now also has education, employment, building and women’s programs. For more information or donate to Wells of Hope, go online to www.wellsofhope.com
By Gant LaFleche. Published on The St. Catharines Standard on Saturday, May 2 http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2015/05/01/women-living-as-human-pack-horses
Photo Source and Credits: http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca. The stern-faced women of Sanyuyo , Jalapa in Guatemala, listen as the men of the community talk about getting a well working. The women have little direct say in how their community is run. Photo by Grant LaFleche.