One morning my host mother in Nizag and I were eating breakfast when I noticed the unusual abundance of eggs in the kitchen. Eggs, at $0.15 each, are expensive for my family. For this reason we eat eggs only occasionally. So I asked my host mom how we got them.
My host mom bought the eggs from her cousin at $0.25. There were at least 15 eggs in the basket in the kitchen. My mother’s 40-year-old cousin had three children to feed and no money to buy food with. Her husband worked in the coast but when he came back to Nizag every week, he did not give her any money. He drank, heavily. My mother suspects violence. “This is how my cousin lives. So we bought the eggs to help her buy food for her children” said my host mom with a sad and defeated tone. And so began the storm of questions.
“Why don’t her parents help her?”
“Her father and her husband’s father are also drunks.” *
“Why doesn’t the church help?”
“The pastor talked with the husband and for the time being the husband says ‘Ok, I’ll be better’ but then after a week he goes back to his bad habits.”
“Why doesn’t the community help?”
“Everybody knows how she lives and they know about other women like her but no one says or does anything.”
“Why doesn’t she divorce him?”
“She doesn’t have money for lawyers. She also believes as Jesus carried his sufferings, she must also carry and live with her sufferings.”
I was indignant. I felt powerless because I realized how deeply rooted the taboo nature of talking about abuse against women was in Nizag. What I thought was worse; these women lived in a culture where they believed stoicism in the face of abuse was the same as religious piety. I could not stand how these two behaviors in this community were silently perpetuating the mental and physical abuse of women.
My heart was breaking for the women who alone carried the burden of raising children while their husbands went to work in different regions of Ecuador and other countries. The emigration of men out of Nizag in the last 10-12 years seems to have skewed the female to male ratio. When I walked around Nizag, I saw women leading cattle, women working the fields, women cooking, and women raising children. I saw little boys and teenagers but almost all the young men and middle-aged adult males seem to have been swept away by the call of opportunities in the United States and Spain.
Many women are struggling. They are sometimes abandoned by their husbands. And sometimes like mom’s cousin, they are abused. Of course there are those who are living in harmony with or without their husbands. Nevertheless, I can’t fathom how strong and resilient they have to be to carry the burden of being the head of the household in a (machista) society where their opportunities for education and financial freedom are limited.
My mother said that things for women have improved. But she also says that the absence of the men in the household is difficult. And sometimes their presence is a hazard.
I had a hard time contemplating this issue because as much as I wanted to intervene I was held back by my lack of knowledge about everything that was around me. I realize that many things that I don’t yet understand such as the culture, the history, and the belief system constructed the people’s view of women and their relations with men. Because I am self-aware of my ignorance, I then came to the conclusion that first and foremost I am here to observe, learn and understand: at least for right now, making a change is not my obligation.