I debated whether or not to write this blog . . . but then I went out to dinner with friends for Valentine’s Day and ran into one of my fellow teachers and his valentine’s date, a fifteen year-old female student. So any and all reservations I had over writing about sexual harassment/gender relations here disappeared almost instantly. And I felt fairly nauseated. So here goes my rant . . .
I am completely aware of the fact that I look at sexual harassment through the viewpoint of an American female. Before moving to Moz, I knew that the gender dichotomy here would be very different than it was in the States. While I theoretically understood the differences, I didn’t understand how much they would affect my everyday life.
I don’t walk to the market between noon on Friday and Monday morning because the likelihood that I will be grabbed (anywhere from my arm to my ass) or verbally harassed increases exponentially. I am much less open in Portuguese than in English (which is saying something since I’m definitely not an emotions person in English) – I wish I could be more friendly to people, but I’m quite simply tired of having every male with whom I have an un-hostile conversation assume that it would then be appropriate to ask me; to have sex with them, my age, how many children I have, why I don’t have any children, and what my cell phone number is. I’m tired of the fact that once I answer these questions (no, 23 or 50 depending on how annoyed I already am, 0, because, and I don’t know) a group discussion on which of the lovely gentlemen in the crowd should be the one to impregnate me almost always ensues.
Despite all these interactions, I’ve never felt physically threatened (although I did yell at a guy in English for about 5 minutes after he grabbed my butt) and Inhassoro is a very safe place. However, on an all too frequent basis I reflect on the fact that Moz has one of the highest percentages of women in elected office and am completely flummoxed as to how this is even possible. It isn’t as though things completely change once you enter the workplace. Recently I went on a teacher’s curriculum-planning trip to a nearby school (nearby meaning 7 hours each way). The car was filled with about 50% male and 50% female teachers all of whom are more educated than the average Mozambican. Despite the fact that we were obviously not in a locker room, the topic of conversation ranged from demonstrations of sex moves that a male teacher would be performing on his wife that night, discussions of the clothing choices of a female walking by and even a brief interlude about who the most attractive female students are. And none of my fellow female teachers did or said anything. Which, after seeing their interactions with the male teachers over the past year, really did not surprise me, but served as an ongoing reminder of how fundamentally unequal men and women are here.
One of the most difficult parts of this past 17 months has been the ongoing harassment – both directed towards me and even more so in the interactions between my female students and the male teachers. Unfortunately this is all too commonplace and practically embedded in the education system here – many teachers don’t even try to hide the fact that they’re dating students. While I can work with the girls to improve their self-esteem and let them know that they don’t have to date teachers to get good grades, I’m not here to force things to conform with my worldview and know that if I said anything to my school’s directors they’d probably shrug and ask what they’re supposed to do (actually there is a good possibility that my vice-principal would laugh and remind me that this is Mozambique). On each and every national or provincial test my students take (some kids take up to 15 a year) there is a little quote on the top about ending sexual harassment in the school system. A nice touch, but not one of the teachers’ meetings or morning assemblies has ever dealt with the issue – it’s not as though my school (or any school that I know of for that matter) has a counselor to whom female students could talk to about these issues. Plus teachers here are notoriously hard to fire - one of the Portuguese teachers at my school stole thousands of dollars from the primary school when he was the director, if he still works for the school system, how can I expect a teacher who dates minors to be fired?
And as the last portion of my rant, I am not a menina (girl) but would really prefer to be a mulher (woman). The fact that men over the age of sixteen are “men” but females are still “girls” until they turn thirty is ridiculous. I live by myself, on a different continent than my family and have been fully self-sufficient for over a year (and before that was living over 3000 miles from my family) – I’m fairly certain this qualifies me to not have a debate over whether or not I’m a menina or a mulher every time I tell someone my age. I would also really appreciate it if guys (students, random people on the street, other teachers) would please stop staring at my knees. I know they are somewhat scandalous, but really on a good day they would probably be called knobby and on a bad day they would be called Dobby knees. They aren’t sexy in any sense of the word, and your staring just makes my life more awkward than it already is.