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.