Brazil: More than itty-bitty bikinis

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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.

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Finally some photos…

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Uploading just one photo in Nepal was a painful process that usually ended in failure due to routine power outages. Now that I’m back in the land of high speed internet all my photos are up! You can go to the Photos tab above or click here to look through the albums. Happy browsing!

Issue: Dowry Deaths and Bride Burning

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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: Nepali Yoga Women’s Trust

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 There’s nothing I love more than finding a successful women’s organization with a vibrant, local female running the show.

Three years ago Devika Gurung founded the Nepali Yoga Women Project with Emma Despres, a woman from the UK. Devika grew up in Nepal and is fully aware of the harsh realities women face in the country. At the age of 15 she dropped out of school to help her family earn money. Her first job involved lugging heavy rocks around an airport construction site. Later jobs included working in an orchard, making carpets, and cleaning houses.

When you meet Devika it’s hard to imagine her childhood consisting of manual labor (even though it’s common for Nepali girls). Devika is beautifully poised and radiates positive energy. Her adult life hasn’t been free of challenges either, but along the way she learned English and began practicing yoga. Eventually, she opened her own yoga studio in Pokhara.

At this studio she connected with Emma. The two women decided to start a project to develop the unsuspected, inner skills of Nepali women and allow them to reassert themselves in society. They wanted to create a positive environment where Nepali women could learn how to heal and support themselves. Continue reading

Nepal: A Peaceful Last Stop in Pokhara

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Nepali boy sleeping in Durbar Square in Kathmandu.

During the last month my posts have slowed and I’ve gotten many questions about where I am and what I’m doing. So, for those
of you wondering, I’ve been living in Pokhara, Nepal.

Nepal represents an eclectic mixture of ethnic, religious, and political tendencies. It’s landlocked by Tibet and India, both of which heavily influence Nepali culture. The country’s spiritual basis blends Hindu, Buddhist, animist and shamanic practices. And although Nepali people are renowned for their peaceful nature, a decade-long Maoist insurgency just ended in 2006. Even today, political disputes and confusion plague the nation but most locals in Pokhara ignore it.

Nepali people are so genuine and outgoing that it’s hard to walk down the street without making a new friend. I’m constantly surprised by their hospitality considering how difficult life is for them. Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia with a GDP per capita of US$470.  In 2008 the UN ranked Nepal 145th out of 153 countries on its Human Development Index. Government power cuts can last up to 10 hours a day which severely hinders growth. And the gender disparities are the worst I’ve seen – for example, the literacy rate is only 26% for females but 62% for males. Continue reading