So my experience here in Roatan has been up and down. Most of the ups are the times I'm spending with the women in the workshop, teaching them jewelry techniques and them teaching me about their lives. Most of the downs have been with the sometimes demanding requests of my American week-long volunteers clashing with passive Honduran behavior. Yes, I used to be a week-long mission tripper myself but I see a different perspective now and am grateful for how I spent those trips sleeping on the church floor instead of at a beach resort. Nevertheless, I was able to get through some of the hard, soul-challenging dilemmas that arose, and found my refuge in the moments of conversation between the women at the jewelry table. I can sometimes remember looking around the table and realizing I was the only person besides the women themselves--the only "outsider"--that could understand what they were saying and that could fully take part in the sharing of life stories. That was pretty amazing.
So, from here on out, I'm just going to share tidbits from some of their more fascinating conversations:
One late morning, the issue of HIV and condom usage came up (a lot of hondurans i know love making sexual references whether appropriate or not and therefore the conversation im sure went from some random funny innuendo to a more intense, serious matter). We began to hit on key topics that I've heard and studied before like accessibility and costs of condoms, their acceptability among the community, etc, and then the conversation headed towards just what fascinates me the most: gender roles. A couple workers began to discuss how the "sistema ha fallado las mujeres" (system has failed women) because condoms always fall under the responsibility of the man...to buy, to bring, to bear. Before I could ask my questions (can women take the responsibility to bring condoms...are females condoms available here...are they used?), the conversation took an even more interesting turn: hombres que andan en la calle (men sleeping with other women).
One of my favorite women in the workshop, and certainly the most outspoken, put down her macrame board, gave a little attitude-im-about-to-say-something-so-listen-up wave of her hand, and said (in spanish), No, no, no...you see, it's the married women that' has the risk nowadays. How HIV goes around this place, if you're single, you'd be crazy to not put on a condom. But the married women...well what's she gonna do when her husband sleeps around and then comes home for his wife. She's not going to make him wear a condom, and she's not going to say no to sex because she's got her needs too. And passive women have it worst because they wont communicate with their husbands and they wont fight for themselves. But at the same time, they dont satisfy their husbands. So you know, it doesnt just fall on the husbands either. It falls on the communication between them both. A woman has to be willing to learn how to satisfy a man, be a little risky and explore. And the man has got to be faithful. Both have to trust too.
Yep, I wish I had a tape recorder. It was as if all the stories and explanations I've heard about in class regarding gender roles and HIV/AIDS was coming out of this woman's mouth. How responsibility falls on both sides and how communication between the two is the most important and crucial answer. Yet it seems pride and fear stand in the way.
As I looked around the group, I noticed some of the other women staying quite but nodding at times. I asked the group if this was the case, how do we change that. Their responses were few, saying that there was no way to really change it. I later asked how many had been infected by their husbands who had been previously unfaithful. Almost every head raised and gave me a nod. I couldn't believe it...and yet I also couldn't believe how upset and angered I was by it while they were so melancholy about it. As I was reflecting, one women interrumpted my thoughts to help me better understand their perspectives. She told me, Look, whats done is done. You can't go back. I've forgiven him. We have 2 kids and I love him. And so we've moved forward. We're both patients here at the clinic and we're doing well.
Here I was shocked and angered by the fact that each of these women, each of these women who I've been working with and have come to love, had been the exact examples of HIV transmission and gender imbalances/power relations. And yet they've forgiven, they have shown compassion, and they have moved on with their lives.
Sometimes I think because I come from the States and have heard about the "ravage" of HIV among the developing world, I have this acquired sense of intensity or obvious gravity of the situation. Sure, HIV is serious issue. And when you see patients who have progressed so far they have to be carried into the clinic, the intensity and gravity of the situation are given a face. But I feel like, in my experience, the focus is so much how horrible of a disease it is, that we don't focus so much on the hope and the compassion that people living with HIV carry with them daily.
I'll leave you with experience that really touched me. At the support group on Saturday, Dona Nilva* (a HIV veteran at the clinic and one of the workers I trained these last couple weeks) and I had a quiet moment when she was able to share some of her incredible testimony with me. At one point, she looked at me and said, Look, Johanna. Depression is serious. Some days, I wake up and I look at my pills and I think, My God, I have to live the rest of my life waking up to these pills. That's a depressing thought. But then, I try to think about thanking God for these pills. He's given me these pills so that I can live day after day. So that's what I think about and that's how I move forward.