Photos by Miguel Zafra
The United Nations-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women takes place in Beijing, China this month. Topics will include economic and political participation, health issues, and human rights. To gain a better understanding of the role of women around the world, three young female writers, from Guatemala, Uganda and Japan, offer a more intimate perspective on what it's like to come of age as a female at the end of the 20th Century.
The photos in the section are of women from Oaxaca, Mexico (not the authors), culled from "Las Caras de Mi Pueblo (The Faces of My People, My Town), a collection of images taken in is home town by Miguel Zafra. Mr. Zafra currently resides in Santa Cruz.
And I want only two or three children, not ten like my mother has, because I think one is happier that way, and can tend the children better too. I don't know what I'll do if my boyfriend says he wants more than that. We haven't talked about it yet...
Amalia Luis Yach is an 18 year-old Mayan Indian. This piece was transcribed and translated from Spanish by Mary Jo McConahay. Alotenango, Guatemala
I was born here in this town at the foot of the volcano called Fuego, or Fire. A little more than half of us who live here still wear traje, Maya Indian dress. To me, being indigenous and wearing traje makes me happy-my father is this way and my mother too, so that is just the way I am. People who don't dress this way have called me "indio," a slang word, because they think they are better than indigenous people. But it doesn't matter: I feel good inside, so they can't offend me.
My grandmother Romana is very old and still speaks lengua (Maya Caqchiquel), but I don't speak much of it-just Spanish. I think my life today must be better than hers was. Before, she said they were always hungry-they worked only for others, not on their own land, and there was never enough corn. The men they worked for cheated them and they could do nothing about it.
But I worked for two and a half years in a factory sewing clothes. There were 900 of us working there-it is owned by a Korean man. I earned $70 every 15 days. I got the job because I went to school until fifth grade, so I know how to write, and could fill out the application test. If one doesn't know how to write, you can't work. Now I have my own sewing machine-well, I have two payments left, then it is all mine. I quit the factory because my family needed me more at home, but I'm pretty smart and knew my job well, so once in awhile they come looking for me. Maybe someday I'll return.
If I could have only one dream, it would be to sew. In my own little business. I could make three dresses a day, charging $3 each, except that these days I have to help my father in the fields and my mother too. As it is, I can make a dress in three days. For me, what is important in life is to be able to work.
My dream would also be to have my own house-a little better than the one I live in, which is just sticks and a dirt floor. I would like one made with a few cinder blocks. But not far from my parents. And I want only two or three children, not ten like my mother has, because I think one is happier that way, and can tend the children better too. I don't know what I'll do if my boyfriend says he wants more than that. We haven't talked about it yet...
I think life is harder for young men like him these days
than it is for us young women. Besides being in the sun all day in the fields,
they have to worry about being kidnapped by the guerrillas to fight with
them, or forcibly recruited by the army. We are not yet at peace. Things
are changing in this town around me. Before, when I was a child, everyone
was more or less the same. But now, many are wearing ladino (non-indigenous)
clothes and new religions are here. But that doesn't matter so much. We
are still not so much different from each other. What is important is a
Women can lose their jobs for any reason, for instance, because they decide to get married to a real husband instead of the company. More often than not, they are "retired" once they are no longer young.
If we want to change our situation as women, we have to change ourselves. Waiting until society decides to move is not only a waste of time, it's a waste of one's life. -Yuki Kai
Company Replaces Husband As Surrogate Spouse: Beware The Fate Of The OL (Office Lady)
Yuki Kai is a self-employed, 22 year-old English language teacher in Tokyo, Japan
Are Japanese women free from the arranged marriage (omiai) system of the old days?
Superficially yes, but in reality no. Nothing has changed my standpoint as a young Japanese woman except for the partner. Today, the "husband" is the company-one's employer and surrogate spouse.
In an "omiai" relationship, the bride was expected to bring youth, a good background and loyalty to her future husband and his family. Exactly the same demands are required by the company. New high school graduates are preferred over job-hoppers because they can adapt more readily to the customs of the company. Graduates of elite universities are valuable for they enhance the corporate image. In both cases, the female employees are required to remain as chaste wives.
As in an old-style marriage, the right of divorce is one-sided. Women can lose their jobs for any reason, for instance, because they decide to get married to a real husband instead of the company. More often than not, they are "retired" once they are no longer young.
When employed at a travel agency as a tour operator, I once asked a boss how things worked in the company. "It's none of your business," he answered. "This is a male employee's concern. Just concentrate on your work without thinking so much."
Despite the appearances that women are gaining in their options, our basic status has remained unchanged. This is because Japanese society still clings to traditional conventions in which women are supposed to stay inside the home. Furthermore, young women are expected to maintain harmony among their group-at home or in the office-by suppressing their individual personalities. To get out of this setup is difficult because daily life is so deeply immersed in such conventions.
In my grandmother's youth, such conformism was necessary to support the government. After World War II, the government was replaced by the company.
To avoid the fate of an OL (office lady), many women feel they have no choice but to try to find a real partner-a high-salaried, well educated man. In this way, they are just like their grandmothers.
On the other hand, there are many ambitious women who have a mind to carve out a career for themselves. A friend, who is 29, began to study information processing after working as a clerk for seven years. When she applied for an opening in another company, she was rejected because of her "advanced" age. She hasn't given up and says she's not afraid for her future.
Such independence can lead to a life with real meaning. So why don't more of us try it? If we want to change our situation as women, we have to change ourselves. Waiting until society decides to move is not only a waste of time, it's a waste of one's life. If the number of women like my friend increases, the community will follow them.
And someday, after marriage, these women can have babies
of a new generation-who will not have to behave like their great grandmothers.
Men Underestimate Competitive Advantage Of Being Female
God had reason to make me female and it is definitely exciting. A female learns early in her life that inner strength can literally move mountains.
Eleanor N. Wozei is a 24-year-old civil engineering graduate of Makarere University who currently teaches public health and environmental engineering at the same university. She currently resides in Kampala, Uganda.
If I had to live my life over again, I'd still choose to be female. I've never thought of being male, but I'm not sure that it is any easier. God had reason to make me female and it is definitely exciting. A female learns early in her life that inner strength can literally move mountains.
In many cultures, females are considered to be the "weaker"-or to put it more politely, "fairer"-sex. As a result, a girl grows up conscious that there are things women don't do. In my opinion, this psychological conditioning is very damaging to the female psyche.
When my mother was growing up, most women strove to be teachers or nurses or secretaries. A female's traditional role as a homemaker was extended to include society at large. The exciting thing about that time was that our mothers were usually pioneers in this venture outside the home. Most of my age-mates are only second generation career women. I believe that having mothers who are career women has widened our options and enabled us to consider non-traditional careers as our goals. We are very lucky to have more role models.
I was fortunate to attend all-girls' schools at critical stages in my life. I learnt that my successes and failures were generally my own and there was no excuse not to do my best under the circumstances. The motto of my high school was "never give up" and our headmistress never missed an opportunity to remind us of it. At school it was an everyday occurrence to see girls excelling in the traditionally male fields of math and science. Indeed, it was only during the holidays that we discovered that this was anything unusual. During the holidays most Ugandan girls become involved in domestic activities. Because of this, females must learn early to prioritize activities and make intensive use of the limited time they have.
All said and done, females still have traditions and customs to contend with. It is a pity that many males, and some females, underrate female capability. I have witnessed this in some offices where visitors, on being told the female behind the desk is in charge, insist on seeing "the boss." One of the most ironic advantages of being female is that males tend to underestimate their female competition. Another female advantage is intuition. To skeptics, I would counter, "What is reason, if not an extension of one's feelings?"
Uganda has, since the late 1980s, advanced the policy of affirmative action for females. Although I support the idea of "positive discrimination," I believe it should be placed in a time frame. Otherwise it may defeat its objectives. Already, many men appreciate the complementary role of females in Ugandan society. This is a big step forward; but some men are already complaining that women are getting too many "advantages." There is hope that in the foreseeable future, women will have equal opportunity for equal ability not only on paper but in reality as well.