Muhanga District, Southern Province
PC Rwanda Health 6
Rwanda still has a ways to go in regards to gender equality... But so does the world. Living in a developing country, so very far from home in many aspects, has illuminated the strength with which gender stereotypes still exist in the United States. To some extent, it is much more pronounced in regards to men, as the stereotypically "masculine thing" has become much more blurred than the stereotypical "feminine thing."
Clothing is an area where these American stereotypes are still significantly pronounced, mostly in the sense of "men's colors" and "women's colors." While many women, especially those living in the villages, still wear skirts exclusively, many other clothes, clothes that in the United States would be clearly defined as either male or female, are equally shared between the genders. The stereotype of colors does not exist here. Men and women wear all colors of the rainbow without a second thought, it is not uncommon to see grown men in bubble gum pink shirts, floral attire, or rocking the Hello Kitty, and most shirts are worn extremely snug to the body. In fact, at our latest Southern District BE Camp (Boys Excelling), we had issues with the shirts because none of the boys, even those in their upper teens and beyond wanted anything other than small! They like it, they wear it (tight). It is that simple. Yes, poverty exists in this country, but despite what a fellow volunteer once suggested to me, these choices are not based on poverty. Given the choice between two clothes of equal quality, size and price, it is solely personal choice that make the decision, and personal choice can swing in either direction. There is no notion growing up that certain colors can only be liked by either gender. It is often impossible to tell the gender of a baby, and there are no outside cues to help you out. Blue, pink, loose, lacy... unlike in the "progressive" United States, these are all exchanged across the genders at free will. I like to think of myself as extremely progressive in my views of gender equality, yet even I often shock myself with my assumption of the gender of a baby or small child because they are wearing a blue hat, a tight purple sweater, or wrapped in a blanket that is fluffy and pink. These cues are so ingrained into our perceptions that it is hard to completely ignore them, even if you are conscious of them.
Another extreme example of stereotypes that exist in the United States can be seen by the touching culture that exists in this country. While homosexuality is not illegal here, it is not a protected class, and is by no means socially accepted across the population. What is interesting about this, is that for a country so fearful of relationships between those of the same gender, there is no stigmatization given to PDA amongst friends of the same gender. While the world is, in general, pretty accepting of this tradition among women, as it is often seen as sensitive and therefore "girly" in the viewpoint of much of the world, it is almost unheard of, in a variety of countries, especially in the United States. Men (as do women) hold hands here, they hug, and they sit on each other's laps. All of the time. It is interesting to see how this bothers many of our male volunteers. It has become a joke. We tease them that they are going to be holding hands with each other walking down the street before we leave, they laugh, but most of them shake their heads and have slight glimpses of panic in their eyes. Here though, not a single Rwandan would bat an eye. They are friends, they are close, they respect and cherish each other, and most importantly they were never told it was "girly" to hold someone's hand. It is only through our American eyes that it is "not normal."