Brazil: More than itty-bitty bikinis

1

Brazil – it’s a country known for its soccer fanatics, booming economy, and of course, its beautiful women. Last year, I spent two weeks exploring the barrios of Rio de Janeiro, drinking potent caipirinhas, and absorbing a cancerous amount of rays on the beaches of Buzios.

I’m embarrassed to admit that before my trip I built up a Hollywood image of the culture. I envisioned the country as an incessant party with scantily clad, Carmen Miranda-like women dancing in the streets.

Apparently, the idea that Brazil is full of topless women hanging out on the beaches is common among tourists – perhaps a contributing factor to speculation that Brazil has surpassed Thailand as the world’s top sex tourism destination.

I’m not sure how I conjured up such an unrealistic impression of the country. I’ve spent significant time living and traveling all over Latin America. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I noticed similar social disparities in Brazil.

Brazilian culture varies drastically by regional, ethnic, and tribal influences. Rio is severed by a dramatic poverty line which is especially apparent in the city’s infamous favelas. And the interactions of Brazilian men and women reveal hints of machismo attitudes.

Brazil stands out among the Latin American countries from a fiscal standpoint. The country boasts one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and its powerhouse size alludes to large amounts of untapped resources available for profitable development.

Recent events point toward changing dynamics. Brazil elected its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, in January 2011. It was also chosen as host for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, two events that will foster substantial increases in development and tourism.

So why had I focused solely on the appearance of the country’s female population?

According to native Brazilian, Alex Goncalves de Oliveira, local women are plagued by a stereotype that precedes them. Alex grew up in Tres Coracoes, a smaller city in the southeastern province of Minas Gerais. She says, “Most people think of Brazilian women as sex symbols, amounting to nothing more than itty-bitty-bikini-wearing, samba-dancing girls. But the ultimate irony is Brazil’s first female President is a strong leader, who’s a little plump, sports a boyish haircut, and has a deep, raspy voice.”

Alex believes the stereotype is perpetuated by the media and by the relationships between Brazilian men and women. Although she’s noticed improvement in recent years, Alex tells me about the ‘womanizing’ tendencies of Brazilian men. Cheating, spousal abuse, and alcoholism are common and somewhat socially acceptable. As in most societies, the reputations of women are easily bruised. The women have a lot more to overcome to get ahead.

Nicole Scholet, an American friend of mine, agrees Brazilian women suffer unjust labels, but admits the culture places an extreme focus on physical appearance. She spent two months living in Brazil when Lula was President and six months a year later under Rousseff.

Nicole says, “Brazil is such a place of paradoxes. Brazilian women care a lot about their appearance. They always wear makeup and do their hair. They never look scrubby – even if they’re walking to the corner store to buy bread. While I was living there, several people told me I would look better if I wore makeup more often.”

Nicole confesses, “Brazilians aren’t as judgmental about body types as Americans. Every woman (regardless of weight) wears a thong bikini, and it’s not considered scandalous or sexual. You never hear ‘She’s too fat for that swimsuit.’ In the States we make critical remarks about people, but in Brazil the focus on the female body tends to be in an appreciative way. As a woman, I felt way more attractive [in Brazil] than in the US.”

This focus on outward appearance contributes to foreign stereotypes, but may not be to the total detriment of Brazilian women. At least from an education perspective, Brazilian women don’t seem hindered by elements of machismoism in their society.

In Brazilian schools, females represent a majority at every grade level. Alex tells me, “Almost all the women in my family attended high school and went on to graduate college. My grandmother was widowed in her late 20’s and left with five mouths to feed. She became a school teacher and eventually the director of the school in her town. All of my female cousins graduated from university and some are working toward their Masters. Last year, one of my aunts got her PhD, and won Brazil’s top award for research in Journalism. Sadly, the men in our family have stayed behind. I can’t think of one who has graduated college.”

It will be interesting to watch the country’s progress over the next decade. The emphasis placed on the education of its female population will certainly help Brazil stay in the forefront of the emerging economies.

If Rousseff’s election as President is any indication, Brazil’s future political and business sectors will be filled with a powerful set of female leaders. I don’t predict their itty-bitty-bikinis going out of style anytime soon, but these women should be able to rid the nation of any stereotypes that don’t serve them well.

Advertisements

Issue: Dowry Deaths and Bride Burning

20

Asha is 28, university educated and unmarried. For a Nepali girl she’s deviated far from the accepted path. Asha finished university with a degree in sociology and speaks fluent English. In discord with her parents, she refuses marriage proposals on a regular basis.

Asha works 12-14 hour days in the family business. Her brothers refuse to pay her. When they’re not looking, she takes her wages from the cash drawer. Every month she deposits the accumulated income in a secret savings account. It’s taken her 4 years to save US$1000.

I sit in a wicker chair, wrapped in a blanket with a cup of masala tea. Asha sits in the chair next to me. It’s late and most Nepalis are in for the night. Two boys play with sticks in the street, but Pokhara is quiet. One of the boys trips and tumbles into a bush. I laugh but I realize I’m the only one. I turn to Asha who looks overwhelmed with worry.

“Hey, ash, are you okay?”

She sighs deeply. “I don’t want this life,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

Latent panic enters her voice, “I don’t want my life to turn out like the rest of the girls here.”

I reassure her, “Don’t worry. It won’t.”

“Have I told you about my sister?”

“You have a sister?” I’ve been in Pokhara for a month. I’ve met all her family members and no one had mentioned a sister.

“Yeah, she died.” Her eyes swell with tears. “Svara. She was 3 years younger than me.”

Continue reading

Organization Profile: AFESIP Cambodia

1

‘Human trafficking’ is “the illegal trade in human beings for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor.” My friend Katy calls it a “dinner party term.” She says “It reveals nothing about imprisonment, abuse, physical pain, slavery, withdrawal of basic human rights like freedom, destruction of trust and of a person’s identity.” I couldn’t agree more.

Katy modeling clothing for trafficking awareness.

I first heard about AFESIP while reading Somaly Mam’s The Road of Lost Innocence. Somaly’s memoir documents of her sexual enslavement and escape. I was so moved by her story and already interested in anti-sex trafficking efforts that I contacted AFESIP while planning my trip to Cambodia. This ultimately led me to Katy’s blog and her volunteer work.

In Cambodia, the sex industry thrives. It’s an issue you witness in the streets. A brothel is never more than a 5-minute walk away. And while it may look like the girls “consent,” the truth is most feel like they have no other option and no way out. The rescued girls who come to AFESIP suffer from abuses difficult to imagine. Many experience torture and addiction to drugs  such as methamphetamines and heroine. (For more information on the sex industry in Cambodia visit my previous posts: The Issues, The Sex Industry of Cambodia, and Cambodia: Masculine Mentality, Sex Culture, and Gender Based Violence).

A photo taken by Katy demonstrating the self harm (cutting) many girls resort to, relieving the mental and physical pain of their daily lives.

So the question becomes: how do you combat an issue so broad and destructive? How do you access girls held hostage in this lifestyle? And if you can reach them and remove them from imprisonment, how do you attempt the recovery process? How do you rehabilitate a girl who’s grown up in an environment where she’s routinely raped, violently beaten, and force-fed drugs? Continue reading

Indonesia: Boys will be boys, but where are all the girls?

8

I recently volunteered as an English teacher with a program called 4th World Love for a week in Sembalun, Indonesia. Sembalun is a remote village on the island of Lombok. To give you an idea of the poverty here, I lived with the wealthiest family and still used a squat toilet and didn’t have a shower.

This post was difficult for me to write. I left the village with conflicting memories. On one hand, the hospitality of the locals was unexpected and exactly what I needed during a period of homesickness. Many of my students made an effort to show me their beautiful country and way of life – and this is something I will never forget. Yet, my time here was tainted by my personal experience as a woman in the village. And while it
gave me insight into the lives and struggles women face in Indonesia, I’m sad to say I felt uncomfortable the majority of my stay and I left unimpressed with the education program provided by 4th World Love’s Cultural Development Center (CDC).

I was raised to approach every situation with a positive outlook and to search for beauty in the most trying situations. You’ll notice in my photos I’m smiling and happy, and I was! I had an eye-opening (although challenging) experience, and I’m so grateful my journey brought me to the people of Sembalun. However, due to the nature of my blog I won’t be discussing the amazing people I met and the fun things I did. Instead, I’ll focus on my experience as a female here and explain my dissatisfaction with the organization. So here’s how it starts… Continue reading

Cambodia: Masculine Mentality, Sex Culture, and Gender-Based Violence

3

Gender plays an important role in Cambodian social life. In Phnom Penh, clusters of men sit in restaurants and litter the street corners. I rarely see a group of girlfriends chatting around a table for lunch.

At night this division becomes more apparent. Men meet at restaurants and karaoke bars to indulge in a night of drinking and bonding. For men, many nights in Phnom Penh end with the purchase of sex. In 2007, a study of men who frequent entertainment venues, karaoke and bars, revealed 53% had paid for sex in the last 12 months with an average of 8 partners. (The unfortunate outcome of this statistic is every time I meet a Cambodian male I question whether or not they fall into that 53%.)

Cambodian masculinity centers on group inclusion and confirmation. When a group decision is made to end a night at a brothel, one member rarely refuses because of the Cambodian tendency to avoid conflict and high levels of peer pressure. Many men admit they pay for sex because they don’t want to feel excluded from their social groups. Some report waiting outside brothels while their friends have sex, but more admit to following the pack.

In Cambodia, masculinity implies an inability to control sexual desires and actions. Many men consider sexual self-restraint biologically impossible.

Continue reading