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Social Customs

Gender Issues on International Exchanges

The relationships between men and women in different cultures can be quite different and as a result there can often be misunderstandings about the way men and women relate on a workcamp. This means that it is important to consider the culture and ethnicity of a person before judging their views on how men and women should behave. It is all too easy for women from western cultures to view non-western women as being oppressed, with few rights or access to what they believe is a proper way of life. On the other hand it is just as easy for non-western women to view western women as “loose”, with no self-respect or values.

It will be important that the volunteer keeps in mind to distinguish the “workcamp reality” from the “the reality of the country”, where the workcamp takes place. In most cases, the situation on the workcamp is much more flexible.

In written reports of past volunteers, you will sometimes find strong comments from western volunteers about the conditions of the women in the countries where they volunteer, or hear inappropriate comments about the ‘freedoms’ women in western countries are believed to ‘enjoy’. But often people forget to link such comments with the broader social, cultural and historical context of the country they are staying in, and unintentionally judge men and women on the basis of incomplete information and their own perceptions, which are often from a very limited angle. In culture there is no absolute truth, and wisdom should be sought in trying to understand why cultures operate the way they do and how changes in society and culture occur.
Gender Balance in the Workcamp

Generally in non-western countries there is a minority of local women participating in the workcamps, whereas the majority of volunteers in western workcamps are women. Volunteers in non-western countries often complain about this gender imbalance, while the volunteers from these are quite surprised to find such a high number of female volunteers in the workcamps in Europe, America and Australia.

It can be difficult for women from some non-Western countries to be involved with a voluntary international organisation, often for socio-economic or other cultural reasons. For example, they may lack foreign language skills or have no free time to spare, particularly if they are expected to participate in the traditions of their culture, such as household chores and living at home. This leaves them with less free time to engage in voluntary work. However, there can also be issues to do with maintaining a certain reputation or standing within a particular community.

“On the workcamp, there was only one Indian female volunteer, the others were all male volunteers. A pity for us, girls, because contacts with Indian men are more difficult.”
Barbara (European participant in a workcamp in India 1992)

“5 girls among 20 boys, it’s quite few! And no local girl apart from the campleader!”
Cecile (European participant in a work camp in Ghana 1999)

“Being the only girl of the camp, I had a sort of honour treatment. Everybody was kind to me and they made everything to let me feel easy; even, when we went to the market, a typical masculine environment, when we went to visit the groups of women, when I was invited to a marriage party, when we went out of the village for excursions.”
Roberta (European participant in a workcamp in Bangladesh 1998)

Intimate Relationships in the Workcamp

Volunteers, both men and women, have to be very careful in establishing relationships with other volunteers of the workcamp, especially local volunteers.

Local volunteers can misunderstand behaviour which for the international volunteers might be considered normal. When participating in international workcamps, volunteers should try be aware of any adverse consequences of developing close relationship with other volunteers in the workcamps or with local people outside the workcamp, which might be due to different cultural understandings of what such a relationship entails. If you are either gay or lesbian it may be difficult to identify whether or not cultural cues operate in similar ways to those of cultures which are more familiar to you, so it is important to make sure you understand these cues before starting a relationship.

In some countries, there is a a skewed perspective of the sexual attitudes and availability of Western women, often due to media images. This can result in the harassment of some female volunteers on workcamps in both Western and non-western countries, but it is more likely to happen in workcamps in Western countries, where there is nearly no social control on an individual’s behaviour. In some cases it can really spoil a workcamp for the female volunteers involved. The problem is partly based on the assumption of the volunteer that the sexual freedom of western women means they are sexual available for all men. It is difficult for some to understand that the personal sexual freedom of some women does not necessarily mean sexual promiscuity.

We were a group of 23 volunteers and there were no local female volunteers, only male. There were only 3 girls, me and a French and a Swiss girl. Between the Swiss girl and the Moroccan volunteers there was a heavy atmosphere; this was because her behaviour and her attitude to dress. It was nothing “special” for us (northern volunteers) but for the locals it was a misunderstanding behaviour…
Anna (European participant in a workcamp in Morocco 1999)

While a cross-cultural romance can give you the opportunity to glimpse another side of the culture of the country where you are volunteering, please be aware that you may not always be aware of the consequences for yourself or your partner. Many cultures do not approve of casual sexual relationships or same-sex relationships, which means that reputations may be compromised, undue expectations raised or there might be more severe consequences. As a result it is important to think carefully before being swept up in a new relationship.

How to behave as a female/male volunteer in the local community

On some workcamps there can be very different expectations about how you will behave while in the local community versus how you can behave within the workcamp. This means that you should try to get to know more about the culture and habits of the local community where the workcamp is placed. This includes learning about what kind of behaviour is appropriate when you go to the market to buy food, look for a bar or club to go to at night, accept invitations for dinner, visit the city or attractions, and so on.

“The problem to be a girl, single not married, a non-believer (not even a Catholic) which means that you are certainly going to be followed in the street; to be whistled at, honked at.”
Aurore (European participant in a workcamp in Morocco 1998)

“Girls must pay attention, when they are alone after the sunset. Generally even during the day, in the more tourist places they are followed by local men. It’s always better to dress with long skirt or trousers, and never with a top that shows too much… “
Marzia (European participant in a workcamp in Sri Lanka 1999)

As you can see from the examples above, many of these cultural expectations will involve different understandings of how women and men should behave. In many African, Arab or Asian cultures, for example, the division between men and women is almost a division between two different worlds, both with proper rules and attitudes…

“When I first came to Bombay – I wanted to visit someone I had met before. I had been given his address but I couldn’t find his house. When I was looking around I saw a young lady passing on the other side of the street and I crossed the street to ask her for the way. When she saw me approaching her, she looked at me in a kind of panic and ran away as fast as she could in her sari. I felt shocked. I mean she behaved as if I had made attitudes of attacking her. It was during the day and there were other passengers in the street, so what? I even had not yet opened my mouth to ask her a question”
European participant in a workcamp in India

“We could understand the role of each member of the family, the women’s role which is really a major one (to take care of the children, to cook, to clean, to wash, to fetch water… Girls don’t go to schools, they help the women, boys generally go to the Koran school and sometimes to a public school when the family can afford it, but they should also help in the fields. No doubt they are better considered than the girls.”
Thomas (European participant in a workcamp in Morocco)

“The man makes sure that the weak women do not work too hard and keeps the heavy stuff for himself. The problem is that women can do 98% of the tasks and the men wait to do 2% for the whole day. In the fields, the men ride the horses while the women keep running across the fields.”
Tancrede (European participant in a workcamp in Senegal 1998)

“All over the country women’s conditions are very low, even if in the towns some women are employed in offices and work outside the house. Generally women are shy and seem to accept their subdued condition. Many women, especially in the country, wear black dresses and cover their face when outside the house. Mostly in town but also in the countryside the law of the strongest is applied in all sectors of life and hierarchies are always respected….It’s normal that men order women…”
Roberta (European participant in a workcamp in India 1999)

Dress codes and personal hygiene

All over the world you may find different dress codes which have their roots in culture, religion, tradition and climate. Social norms may differ widely from culture to culture – while it might be acceptable to walk up to a Miami (Florida, USA) or Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) shop front in just a bikini and shades, in certain countries it could result in being stoned to death or imprisoned indefinitely.

Especially in countries ruled by religious authorities, dress codes may be defined by religious practices seen as more important than personal liberty. A woman without a headscarf in Afghanistan commits a crime punishable by beating, but in another country it might be a reason for execution. In such countries you simply have to follow the dress code if you don’t want to get into serious trouble. Yet even in countries with a more liberal approach a certain degree of care must be taken. The best thing to do is to follow the example of the local people.

What you wear may also depend on the occasion, such as weddings, funerals, services, and theatre. Western volunteers often dress far too casually for formal events. In Europe you might be stopped in front of the church if your top has no sleeves and you are wearing shorts or a mini skirt. In Asia – in India, for example – it is felt that displays of the naked body (both male and female) in public places are disrespectful, especially on a foreigner. Women should especially cover the upper part of their arms and body, as these areas are considered erotic.

Western volunteers, unused to hand washing, may often wear clothes that appear unacceptably dirty to the local people, to whom cleanliness is essential.

“I travelled to the next town and queued for ages at the bank. When I got to the counter, the teller looked in disgust at my dusty apparel and said ‘Come back when you wash your clothes. ‘ This was really awkward, as I couldn’t then get back for two days. She refused to serve me in filthy clothes.”
Leif (Norwegian volunteer, Ghana 1988)

Generally in a workcamp situation wearing long trousers should prevent undue attention, as well as safeguarding against sunburn, mosquito bites, thorny bushes and so on. Bathing during workcamps in Sri Lanka is usually at public water spots such as wells, streams, and rivers. Women who participate in workcamps will need to practice adorning the “diva reddha” (bathing sarong from Sri Lanka) from the neck to the knees.

“The living conditions of the native populations don’t exactly match the ones volunteers are used to… However, careless dressing habits on the part of the volunteers (dirty or torm clothes) really offend the local people who are always carefully and properly dressed.”
Anne (Ecuador 1995)

More generally, while in some countries it is not uncommon for males and females to share the same shower facilities, this certainly cannot be done in others. In many places it is not acceptable that a volunteer of any gender will wash him or herself totally naked in front of somebody of the opposite sex, or allow a situation where they could be confronted with this. These and similar matters will require some sensitivity from international volunteers.

Other Customs

There may be other customs to observe during your participation in the workcamps. These customs vary from country to country. For example, in may countries it is considered very rude to show the soles of your feet to anybody. You could cause terrible offence if you used your left hand to pass food or to shake hands with somebody. It can be considered very rude to leave your shoes on when entering a house. Speaking directly to a woman you haven’t been introduced to could cause her great distress and would outrage her family. While, in western society a woman would be very insulted if she is ignored and might interpret what is intended as politeness as rudeness or as degrading treatment of women.

Many of the countries that participate in exchange programmes are former colonies. White Westerners must take care to avoid offending anybody by appearing superior – for example, by starting sentences with, “You people…” Frustration with primitive tools or unexplained delays can result in this reaction, which could be very damaging to budding friendships. Likewise, years of handouts by “benevolent” Westerners have given non-Western countries the impression that all Westerners have an unlimited supply of money, which they will give when asked; after all, they have so much equipment and can fly all over the world. The truth is that although young Westerners may certainly be rich by some standards, the person who volunteers is usually on a very tight budget, so they need their equipment and don’t have money to give away!

Socialising

In Western countries it is unusual for one person to pay for everything on an evening out. Usually people pay for their share or take turns to pay in a ‘round’ system. They would feel that somebody who eats and drinks but does not pay their share would be behaving in an unacceptable fashion. In non-Western societies the person who suggests going for a drink is seen as issuing the invitation and is expected to pay for everything all night.

In general western volunteers may have more ready cash than their fellow volunteers from poorer countries. It may be inconsiderate to keep flashing money about and to keep bringing drinks or sweets back to the camp, when not all volunteers can afford these extras. It is also important to take this into account when organising weekend or evening activities. Please try and only suggest activities which everyone will be able to afford. This may mean that you will have to put off expensive guided trips, helicopter rides or white-water rafting trips until after the workcamp ).

In Western countries there is a “Pub Culture”. A lot of socialising is accompanied by drinking alcohol, which may or may not take place in a pub. Within many indigenous cultures and various non-Western countries this may not be the case. It may be offensive to insist on consuming alcohol when it is not the local custom. Likewise, some of your fellow volunteers may not be used to spending so much time at the pub, so try and be sensitive to this.

Food and Drink

One of the most interesting aspects of visiting a new continent is experiencing new foods, and should be a pleasant element of the programme. However, there are some issues that volunteers should be sensitive to. In general, foods in western countries are blander than Asian or African foods, and visitors may need to add spices to make them more palatable. Many dishes will also contain pork or beef, which will not be acceptable to everyone. Eating customs also vary widely and you may find themselves eating with their hands or eating from a common dish, in this case make sure to check which hand you should use (usually not your left). In general, although it will be necessary to inform your host if you refrain from certain dishes for moral or religious reasons, being prepared to welcome new experiences will enhance your visit and ensure that you don’t offend your host.

Hospitality

Southern and Western cultures differ greatly in regards to hospitality. Guests from Asia and Africa sometimes feel neglected or even rejected by their Western hosts because they expect them to care for everything the whole time. If a European goes to Asia, everything is taken care of for him or her from their arrival at the airport until the moment of departure. However, in Western culture it is important that everyone is given their individual space. This includes travelling, discovering the world and developing experiences by themselves. While Westerners like to travel and see a country without their hosts, visitors from other countries may find it terrifying to have to travel alone.

Westerners expect to be called in advance if somebody is coming to visit them. “Why didn’t you call?” is what guests from Africa, Asia or Latin American may hear from their hosts in Europe when they appear all of a sudden at their place. In many less industrialised countries where not everybody has a telephone, nobody feels disturbed if a visitor arrives without any announcement. On the contrary, it is regarded favourably if you do so and people will offer all their hospitality to you.

In Western cultures small children are supposed to control their curiosity and not to ask a stranger where he is coming from or going to, and not to touch the guest’s belongings. However, in many cultures a foreigner is always new and strange. Children’s curiosity is boundless and they do not feel compelled to restrict it. Europeans sometimes report from their stay in Africa, Asia or Latin America that there were children all over the place all the time and they had to get used to it.

“In the family and even the village where we were staying, it was the first time that foreigners were hosted. This, at first, influenced our tutor’s behaviour. He was always asking us ‘Where are you going?’ It was sometimes embarrassing. Many children were daily invading our hut, which was turned into a centre for children, thirsty of some northern exoticism. 30 people were sometimes piled up in a.4 square meters. It was a bit suffocating.”
Thomas (Maroc 1999)

“We were welcomed like kings by the villagers. We were invited to take part in the local events and were often given presents. After the workcamp I went back to the village, it was unbelievable…Impossible to walk a 100 meters without being asked in to eat something, to have a soft drink or to be given a coconut…The villagers were constantly offering their devotion, their help, their joy and their presence”.
Louise-Marie (Togo 1999)

“From my point of view; the most difficult thing on the workcamp was to overcome some cultural differences such as the position of women, rules you should respect in the morning, during the meals, welcoming and departing rituals which you need some time to get used to and stop blundering”.
Laurence (Senegal 1996)

The lack of privacy which is so normal in most of the world takes some getting used to by Westerners used to individual space.

Rhythm of Life

In traditional societies time is felt completely differently to those who live in industrialised countries. The traditional society is fundamentally an agrarian one, so the concept of time can be more linked to the revolving rhythm of the seasons – for example, planting and harvesting than to the clock. Another example of a more rhythmical idea of time can be seen in the wheel of time found in Buddhist religions where time is considered as the circle as life.

In Western societies it is generally felt that time is linked with progress; if it is not used it will be lost. A popular saying is “Time is Money”. Western culture and capitalist values can train many people to feel bad when they can’t make use of time. Leisure time for them is not normal; it is often deemed lazy time and only respected as a reward for having finished a hard day of work.

Some volunteers from western cultures may feel unable to tolerate forced leisure time when they are in a workcamp in Africa, Asia or Latin America. They are almost unable to sit down and do nothing, so when there is no work organised, or there are not enough tools for everyone to use, they can’t stand it. Some even prefer to break off and leave the camp in order to travel around. It can be good to be aware that these feelings are not natural but cultural and reveal what types of activities are valued within your culture and which are not.

Often this frustration develops because volunteers may imagine that they have come to a distant country to “help the poor” or “develop” a country. What they may not realise is that one of the biggest challenges of participating in an intercultural exchange is to enter another culture and adjust to the different rhythm of life.

“In all these countries, everything is very slow, in accordance with the local motto ‘Take your time!’ And this is true in all the fields of life (bus timetables, appointments).”
Benedicte (Nicaragua 1999)

“We had been warned that we shouldn’t expect too much work and to be ready to face campleaders who took their role very seriously.”
Raphail (Togo 1999)

“The rhythm is very different. Everything is slow. Once I had to wait for more than one hour to exchange money at the bank… just one example among others. Even on the workcamp you should be armed with patience!”
Louise-Marie (Togo 1999)

“There was some tension because all the Western volunteers wanted to go on working while the Ghanaian volunteers wanted to stop because of the heat… mainly because they have a much slower rhythm of life than ours.”
Maud (Ghana 1996)

Local Beliefs and Religious Practices

From the very beginning of civilisation, religion has played a crucial part in human life and society. Unfortunately religion also has been and still is one of the greatest sources of conflict in the world. One of the most fascinating elements of taking part in a workcamp is the opportunity to live and work with people of very different faiths. The fact that the international workcamps are inter-denominational is surely one of the most positive aspects of the whole concept. For many volunteers it may be their first experience of living and working so closely with people of different faiths and getting to know them properly as people. The opportunities to promote understanding are wonderful.

“I had never before heard the wonderful stories of Ganesh and Shiva and the many Hindu gods. Seeing how they are such an integral part of Indian life, how my work mates accepted their existence unquestioningly was a revelation.”
Anne (India 1999)

“Joe was one of seventeen children. His father had three wives and he considered them all his mothers. Somehow in Ghana this seemed quite natural. The Muslim way of life no longer seemed so alien and vaguely threatening to my Catholic conditioning.”
Avril (Ghana 1998)

“The church service was so strange and quiet, not at all like a service in my country, .with drumming and dancing “
Ernest (Ireland 1998)

Some religious practices may be difficult to accept. Some religions may see women as having different roles, while the sacrifice of animals may seem barbaric to Christians who sacrifice symbolically. The important thing is to avoid insulting one’s hosts by criticising their religious practices. In most countries religion plays a very important part in the lives of the people, and so much can be learned by observing and respecting the beliefs of one’s hosts.

Learning about the dominant religions of one’s host country prior to travelling could be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of preparation for the visit. Indeed, showing that you have researched a little about their faith will please your hosts. You can then test your preconceptions as you learn more during your visits

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