By Julie Shea, KF12, Peru

Living abroad and dealing with cultural differences will inevitably, at some point, present challenges and frustrations. I think it’s the manner in which we address, deal with, and learn from these challenges that make time spent living in a foreign culture so valuable. One of the challenges I had to deal with during my time in Pucallpa (a city in Peru’s Amazon region) was the attention I got from men as a female foreigner.

It came as quite a shock to me, after having spent time in Lima (the capital) and Puno (in the Andes region), where this phenomenon does not occur to the same extent. This fact of life frustrated me extensively; however it has led to some interesting conversations, with foreigners as well as locals, women as well as men.

A good friend’s Peruvian boyfriend tried to shift my mindset, saying that I should be happy and say thank you when it happens because these men are trying to compliment me. I kept this in mind the next time it happened, but I still wasn’t buying it.  This type of attention is particularly problematic to me because it is both unprovoked and inescapable.

Gender relations are incredibly hard to understand as an outsider. It’s difficult to find out exactly what is going on between men and women because much of it takes place in the home. Most Peruvians I speak to (both men and women) agree that gender issues are pressing and they envision a future of greater equality between sexes.  But how do you change a culturally ingrained mindset?

At Manuela Ramos, the staff works hard to instill the female bank members with the notion that the only difference between men and women is that women have menstrual cycles (and the ability to have children). Everything that women can do in the house, men can too. Everything that men can do outside of the house, women can too. I have been at bank meetings and witnessed the women’s reaction to hearing this piece of information – and their realization that it’s actually true.

One of my favorite things to ask the women whose loans have been funded by Kiva is “what is your favorite part about working with Manuela Ramos?” While “increased access to capital” is often mentioned, it is rarely the only answer I get. Most women tell me that their favorite part about working with their Communal Bank is the capacity building session that is a key part of every monthly meeting. The content for these sessions is careful planned and coordinated between Headquarters in Lima and each branch office, depending on the cultural context and needs of the region. Discussion sessions are broken down between Key Gender Issue Modules, Business Management Modules, and GALS tools (Gender Action Learning System: an approach that is based on inclusive and participatory principles and uses mapping and diagrams to educate on a number of topics related to gender issues).

A monthly meeting of the Communal Bank “Las Fresitas,” Yarinacocha, Ucayali, October 5, 2010

The theme of this month’s interactive discussion session was “oraganization”. Based on the analogy of what ingredients are needed to prepare a local dish, the women were asked to brainstorm about what characteristics and personal traits are important for a Communal Bank to work well.

Through their education and training programs, coupled with the loans and access to capital, Manuela Ramos equips these women for a life in which independence and self-sufficiency are attainable. Hopefully these efforts will eventually enable and encourage women to demand respect in all aspects of the traditionally machismo society.

If you are passionate about supporting the women of Manuela Ramos on their path to financial independence, please consider joining our lending team.

Julie Shea is a Kiva Fellow finishing up three months in Peru with Manuela Ramos/CrediMUJER before heading to Bolivia for her second Kiva placement.


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