We cooked all night; chopping, stirring, tasting and waiting. Waiting as the soup stewed, waiting for our pain to subside, waiting for change to ignite. Quinoa; protein-packed super food of the Andes, was the staple grain that I indulged on during my years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the northern Andes of South America. It was March 8, 1999, as we stirred our quinoa soup, we were anxiously waiting to stir the pot around women's rights. It was to be the first recognition of International Women's Day in this community. Here's what led up to it...
It's a dark damp night, my body reacts faster than my mind and has me running towards the noise before I can mentally process what is going on. I push the wooden door open to a dim adobe room as the noise becomes clearer. I hear screaming. My body is still moving towards the noise and my brain cannot process what is happening. Adrenaline takes over as I push and pull him away from her. It's dark, there are more in the room, my brain is catching up to my actions, stop what you are doing, get out of here, run away. I can't run, my common sense and logic are gone. I have placed myself in danger. I scream for help, I kick, I yell, I pull. They are running away, I count, one, two, three, four, there's a fifth. It's dark, I can't see their faces, I hear the language they are speaking and see the outline of long braids running off into the night.
My body continues to react but my brain is not registering what is happening nor what has just happened. I hear the crying turn to screams in the dark corner. I get to her. I know who she is. My brain catches up and I am numb. I can't move, I can't run for help, I can't chase them down, I am frozen. I hold onto her and we sit in silence.
Domestic violence and sexual assault are common around here. Services and support are hard to come by and when it happens, most do not acknowledge it.
The community quickly learns of the incident and begins to say that it is the woman's fault. I am told to keep quiet and fall in line and usually I do yet when it comes to violence and abuse, I can't stay quiet.
"What if this were your own daughter?
What if this were to happen to your sister, to your mother?
What if this were to happen to you?"
I hear nothing, just silence. I interpret the silence as not wanting to help.
I try to be strong and ask for help and if others could help find out about the men involved. No one wants to get involved, everyone is afraid. The men know me, I am the only American living there. It's a small town and I am afraid as well.
My inner critic takes over: This is so much bigger than me, I am wasting my time teaching food security and health when abuse and sexual assault are all around me and most turn a blind eye to it. What am I doing here? It won't matter how long I stay here, I won't crack a dent in this and I definitely can't do this alone. My work is insignificant and I can't help.
I pack my bags, I am leaving the Peace Corps. I believe it will be impossible to convince the women that in order for change to happen, we need to go after it. Nada cambia si no cambiamos nada. We can't sit back and wait for it to happen to us, we need to stir the pot. But how do you stir things up when you are afraid, when you put yourself and maybe others at risk? They are right, it's best to stay quiet and stay away from trouble.
With my bags packed, I travel four hours to visit a close friend ready to call it quits. She listens to me and urges me to get some counseling due to what I witnessed and experienced. I take her advice, step away for a few days, surrender to get some counseling to help me deal with the grief, anger, shock and the impotence I am feeling.
After some time away, soul searching and refocusing, I reflect on another long bus ride winding through the Andes on all the reasons I need to quit. It wasn't hard to think of all the reasons I should go, I then notice my mindset shift to all the reasons to stay:
- She is not quitting, who am I to quit? Who am I to suffer when I wasn't the victim, she's the one who went through the trauma, she doesn't have the option to quit.
- The women in my community have been raised to believe that they have no worth, that when bad things happen it is their fault and that women do not have any rights. Ninety-eight percent of the women in my community are low-literate to illiterate. All were pulled from school by the third grade to work the fields or were sold to a wealthier family to work as their maids in the big city. Yet they do have rights. The Constitution has a code of women's rights, it exists, it's legal. But the women's rights code hasn't yet landed in our tiny little rural community.
- The girls I work with are scared of what happened since the incident has been talked about around the community. This next generation of girls do not think like the older women, they do not believe a woman is automatically at fault.
- Breathe, remember why I started and know I can't quit now, I can't quit on them...
I decide that I will approach this from another angle, I will work with the women and girls to use education now more than ever to raise awareness. I know we will not be able to reduce the incidence of sexual assault nor domestic violence against the women and girls in my community overnight but I intend to spend the remainder of my time in country focusing on 'rights,' gender equity and positive youth development to spark dialogue and action with the next generation of young people.
As International Women's Day approaches on March 8, 1999, I ask, as a community, if we can organize a luncheon to review the constitutional rights of women. If only we could make our quinoa soup (as we always did when we were to grieve or to celebrate) and honor 'her' and the many other women who have suffered violent acts against them then together we could create dialogue around their perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors around women's rights. They agree to it. I ask if we can have Anita, a nine year old girl, serve as the Kichwa translator so as we read in Spanish she can translate and facilitate discussion with the Kichwa elders. I get approval from her mother Rosa Elena who is a firm believer in raising strong daughters.
We cook our quinoa soup all night, stirring the pot and stirring the change in our own community. It was the next morning, change appeared to be arriving as little ones from six years old all the way to women and men in their 80's quietly show up for this large gathering. Maybe they are showing up for the free quinoa soup and not to observe International Women's Day, I'll take it, as long as they show up it's a good place to start.
Eating, talking, laughing, as well as tears, our quinoa soup begins to work its magic for the soul. There are many of us in the room who have also experienced what happened to 'her' and even though we turn a blind eye and pretend it's not our problem, we know deep down, it is our problem, it is wrong and we can do better. We shouldn't be afraid to walk alone, to run alone, to wear makeup, to look someone in the eye, to dance or even to climb mountains...
Anita stands tall and begins to read the women's rights code that has never been recited in our community before. After each 'right' she asks questions in Spanish and in Kichwa to spark conversation in front of a large crowd. I notice how secure and confident she presents herself, she is calm, her mother helps answer all the questions as Anita reads away. Anita is my hero, my example, my strength. Rosa Elena and Anita do not let me quit. These two females are holding my hand again and again willing to go where others wouldn't go and address topics that have been neglected and ignored.
The women are now on a roll, talking over one another as everyone wants to participate. They have found their voice, speaking up and sharing their own stories. We agree that we need to educate and make it safer and better for their daughters and to work with the next generation of boys and girls around decision making, communication, positive choices, self worth, rights and equality.
Not only did we stir the pot on raising awareness in a community that stayed silent for so long, we stirred the pot of quinoa soup that brought people together, brought strength and belief that change can happen when you take action and work at it. Our quinoa soup soothed the soul.
I grew up in a safe environment where I was able to speak boldly about my beliefs and values where I could disagree with others. That was valued and viewed as strength - of having a curious mind and the security to voice my opinion. My Warmi sisters on the other hand, grew up in an environment where they were not encouraged to do the same and in many cases punished if they did. They found it safer to stay quiet, not to make eye contact, not to share their opinions for the fear of repercussion.
On this March 8th, International Women's Day, the Warmis continue to raise awareness and voluntarily act as catalysts towards social change in their communities maintaining momentum and pushing for change for the next generation of young people. They have found their voice and many are not fearful of using it. I am sure there will be many more bowls of quinoa soup served throughout the Andes on March 8, 2017 as women and men come together to celebrate women and reflect on how far we've come and how far we still have to go towards a world of more peace, equality, rights and security.