by Emmie Mediate
“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed.” – Pico Iyer
I put on my “wedding ring” before landing in Entebbe, Uganda. While the capital city of Kampala is modernized, the remote village where I was going embraces a traditional lifestyle – electricity has yet to reach the huts, most community members live off of their land, and women are often married and pregnant by the age of 20. Thus the wedding ring, to avoid marriage proposals or the more frightening occurrence of trafficking single women, I pretended to be married. However, I quickly realized the wedding ring was unnecessary, as guests are treated with the utmost respect and protection, and my fear was further abated when I met the compassionate villagers that soon became my friends. However, over my last four years of traveling to Uganda, I still faced several challenges as a woman working in a country where women’s rights are improving but still sorely lacking. When working with the Ministry of Health, a government official inappropriately hit on me. When conducting interviews, I was asked to “return to my country and be more productive by having children.” When working at an HIV/AIDS clinic, my fellow American male intern received more respect from the patients than I did.
Not only in Uganda, but also in Guatemala, Iraq and Nepal, women are disadvantaged and discriminated against. In the U.S., women are paid an average of 84 cents to a man’s dollar, a disparity that is worse in certain jobs. Clearly, the problem of gender inequality is not limited to Sub-Saharan Africa or countries that are labeled as under-developed. Yet it can be especially difficult to face this inequity when traveling to a new place and confronting an unfamiliar culture.
How are we, as women who travel abroad supposed to face the challenges of encountering a new culture? Of course, in the face of present danger or psychologically disturbing harassment, I would encourage female travelers to ensure their own safety above all else. Yet what about indirectly objectionable practices – when you see a husband talk down to his wife, hear a local friend talk about her circumcision or watch a woman greet a man by kneeling, as is culturally appropriate? It can be much more difficult to determine how to best respond to these practices. In difficult-to-judge cultural scenarios, my best advice is to talk with other women. I found it incredibly insightful to delicately but inquisitively discuss some of the cultural practices that were unfamiliar to me in Uganda. I was surprised to hear that my closest Ugandan friend did not feel discriminated against when she knelt before her father, since it was a sign of respect, but that she did struggle with a lack of power in her household, since her husband made most of the decisions. The discussions that I had with the Ugandan women bound us together, led to deeper friendships, enlightened my understanding of Ugandan culture and even helped the women to realize barriers to their own success. In this sense, I believe that traveling to new places can be beneficial for both parties.
More concretely, there are several organizations around the world that indirectly promote the advancement of women’s bargaining power. If traveling to explore the experiences of other women around the world is not an option, I highly suggest researching some of the amazing groups that are built on the power of female voices. A wonderful book called Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn lists numerous organizations that accept monetary donations and volunteers at the end of their book. Evidence-based interventions such as village savings and loans associations, vocational and skills trainings, household cash transfer programs targeted to women and better pre-natal and post-natal care can help women advocate for themselves in the workplace and at home.
There are certainly risks in traveling, especially when going to the places where few other people venture. Armed with common sense, caution and curiosity, though, the rewards of leaping into adventure can be remarkable and, as I can attest, life-altering. I hope you go.
About the author: Emmie Mediate was a 2015 B. A. Rudolph Undergraduate Scholar. Recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame, she spent the summer interning with the U.S. State Department in the Bureau for African Affairs and is currently back in Uganda with the Association of Volunteers in International Service evaluating a USAID-funded program that aims to improve the well-being of children in HIV-affected families. In 2016, she will be pursuing graduate school at Oxford University in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation as a Rhodes Scholar.