A year ago today, we were in Cambodia, volunteering at a rural English language school for children who spent their after school hours in class, learning English, because they knew it was the ticket to their future in the world. The class was equally made up of boys and girls, and it was the girls who showed the most confidence in their developing language skills.
In a time where there is significant debate and focus on giving girls opportunities and confidence to break from the fluffy pink domestic mould set out for them, I was fascinated by this striking juxtaposition in a Cambodian swamp.
International Women’s Day, a day that had barely clocked my radar before a few years ago, is a state holiday in Cambodia, and in other parts of the world. This country, who committed some of the worst human rights atrocities of my generation, and whose leaders are somehow still in power, revere women in such a way that they mark the day by letting children out of school, closing government offices, and honouring the women in their lives.
One of my heroes, the indomitable Heather Geluk has a blog titled “The People You Meet Along the Way”. Our trip could have been the women we met along the way. Because when I reflect on the people who made an impact on us, the ones we remember most – it’s the women.
Around the world, we saw women at the front. Leading, providing, and working as equals alongside their male counterparts.
We met female construction workers in Nepal. The devastation of the earthquake in 2015 left a lifetime’s worth of reconstruction to be done, and many able adults missing from the workforce. Women stepped in to fill the gap and take up jobs in construction, many of them leaving their homes to work for the very first time. This gave them autonomy and power to provide for themselves while rebuilding the infrastructure of their wonderful country.
We followed the rice harvest around Asia, and the potato harvest around South America. Groups of 5-6 men and women worked their way side by side through the fields, planting, plucking, drying, cutting and winnowing their harvest. The roles weren’t divided in to male and female. There was a job to be done, and able bodied humans to do it. And they all did.
Shrewd business women around the world sell their family’s produce in the markets of cities and villages alike. Most were honest, hard working saleswomen. Some were not. Like the two women who colluded to swindle us out of a double tip for a boat ride, then shouted nasty things at us as she passed the restaurant where we were eating after the ride. But the grandma running the restaurant told her off in rapid fire Vietnamese, and showed us nothing but kindness afterwards.
There was the woman who sold us snacks on a Vietnamese beach. She was used to selling to locals, and didn’t have any English. So a nearby souvenir seller stepped in to help, charging us the equivalent of about $1 for a Vietnamese version of chips and salsa. When the old lady caught on to how much we had been charged, she just wasn’t having it. She piled us up with more of the thin crispy flatbreads and spicy sauce until she was satisfied we had gotten our money’s worth.
The people who left the strongest impressions on us were the proprietresses of the guest houses where we stayed. These grandmas, aunties and mothers formed instant bonds with us as a family, and our son in particular. He was nurtured, loved on, and spoiled with little gifts. And he loved, nurtured and gifted them back. But these ladies weren’t just sweet grandmas. They were fierce entrepreneurs who provided for their families in a dozen inventive ways each and every day.
We met a courageous and grounded, blue dreadlocked young woman in La Paz who took me and a group of women on a tour of the city, and taught us about the women of Bolivia along the way. A somewhat militant activist, she has been in and out of jail, fighting for women’s rights, which still aren’t up to par with the developed world.
It was fascinating to meet the Cholitas of Andean societies. Their wide layered skirts, distinctive long black braids and smart bowler hats stand out as a cultural marker. Being a Cholita is a cultural distinction, and the hierarchical elements of their dress, like the material of their skirts or the height of their hat define their place in their own sub-culture.
In the islands of Lake Titicaca, gender roles are turned on their head. The men of the islands are widely recognised for their skills at embroidery and knitting. They embroider beautifully decorated shirt and skirts for their wives and daughters, and the women wear these items with pride in the handiwork of the men.
Throughout South America, the gas pump attendants were consistently women, a role reversal from most other countries I’ve lived in or visited. There was the moment I’ll never forget, when I engaged in a Spanish Language shouting match with a woman in Bolivia who was trying to cheat us on petrol. It was simultaneously my proudest and most shameful moment of our travels (a feeling to which many women can relate!)
We worked alongside two courageous and grounded young women on a permaculture farm in Chile, and met a woman embarking on a fascinating global project featuring people from around the world and their stories on Instagram @thesoulexplorers.
We arrived in Argentina the day after the (failed) vote for women’s rights, and in Santiago just as a protest was blooming against a University’s decision to not fire a professor who had abused female students.
There were the adventures, the solo travellers, and the women travelling in packs. We met mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and aunties. Women shouldering the burdens of their family’s wellbeing, women earning money for the family, and women fighting for the rights of other women.
Inspiring women are everywhere.
I was slightly horrified when the 20 somethings who were working on the farm with us started referring to me as the mother of the group. They came to me with their cut fingers, their conflicts, and for advice on cooking. I didn’t want to be seen as matronly, but I realised these young adults still needed nurturing, and they sought it out where they could find it. This role of nurturer and caretaker is a role that many of we working women try to push to the background, but it’s an important human need, and we shouldn’t discount how we naturally fulfil that role in our personal and professional lives.
It became abundantly clear to us that image of women in cultures around the world is not just the about adorned and painted dolls in bright clothing that we so often associate with a particular place.
Women are the ropes that hold communities together. They’ve spun the thread, weaved the cloth, and transformed it into something unbreakable. That’s what a woman is. She is the background, the foreground and the connector. We women work together, we work against each other, and we work on behalf of one another. But all day long, we are working for something.
And to me, that’s what being a woman in work is all about.
See my gallery for photos of the women who helped to make our trip.