New Internationalist

Bailing the ocean with a teacup

Issue 090

Each Thursday a nun in street clothes stands on the same busy street corner in the main marketplace of Lima, Peru, handing out small, pink, cheaply-printed leaflets to passing women. On one side the leaflet carries the International Women’s Year logo, a stylized bird in flight with the symbols of equality and womanhood. On the other are the words: ‘I am a woman and if I live I have to struggle and if I struggle I am helping other women not to live in the shadows.’ Inside are printed a few more lines ‘… El Pozo wants to offer you friendship and support. When you want to talk with us, telephone …’

Prostitution is legalized in Peru as in many Latin American countries. In Lima and its port neighbour Callao there are perhaps 60,000 prostitutes. Three-quarters of them are not registered and therefore vulnerable to regular arrest, extortion and imprisonment. Most have young children to support. Husbands are long gone.

There are practically no welfare services in Lima for these women or their children, and the unemployment rate is dangerously high. The six women of ‘el Movimiento el Pozo’ are attempting to guide some of Lima’s prostitutes off the street and into job training. They also offer legal, medical and financial help. And most important of all a new sense of self-worth. El Pozo, ‘the Well’ is rightly named.

The women are supported by MATCH, an Ottawa-based women’s centre that sprouted in the flurry of activity after the 1975 International Women’s Conference in Mexico City. The original premise was simple enough - women in the West helping but also learning from women in the Third World, According to MATCH’s founder Norma Walmsley the idea is to ‘match women’s resources with women’s needs - to expose common problems and strengthen both sisterhood and justice.’

The problems are immense. Ms Walmsley says she sometimes thinks MATCH is trying to bail out the ocean with a teacup. Still, women’s projects pour in and the support grows. One example is a childbirth education scheme in Costa Rica. For less than $1,000 two groups, the La Leche League (which has been quietly promoting breast-feeding for more than a decade) and the Ottawa-Hull Childbirth Education Association are helping women in San Jose develop information that offers women ‘new-old’ insights into childbirth and infant feeding. The goal is to better prepare women for childbirth and to reintroduce simpler techniques. It also aims to reintroduce breast-feeding in an area where the North American high-technology approach to birth has been imported wholesale.

But is this, like MATCH’s projected support of a daycare centre for nurses in Lusaka, or the Sri Lankan ‘creative play’ project which makes toys modelled on a Western line, simply exporting the latest fads of middle-class women to underdeveloped countries?

Critics point to the extended family system and to the natural creativity of East African children who make their own elaborate toys from bits of wire and sticks. They wonder about re-exporting ‘natural’ childbirth techniques to the people whose experience of birth we’ve already messed up. And are these projects getting to the really needy?

MATCH replies that the basic needs of women are universal. Women must regain choice and control over the way they give birth and nurture their babies. They also need some freedom from their children which means setting up and participating in communal childcare facilities. Only then will they be likely to acquire the confidence and independence to take control of other areas of their life. Without these basic first steps the long journey may never begin.

Penny Sanger

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