Local to Global: Reimagining Topics in Womanhood from Rural Panama

The current political climate of womanhood is making history on a global scale.

All over the world, thousands of women are coming head-to-head with the systemic deflation of feminist agendas through massive movements like the International Women’s Day strike and the Women’s March.

As women across continents fight to dissolve sexism, introduce wage equality and protect their bodies, females from underrepresented contexts are fighting similar fights within their smaller communities.

“There are men [that think] just because they’re men of the house, they don ’t wanna help out with the house chores. They don ’t wanna help their women with anything and that’ s not good. There are very sexist men, but not all of them are the same.”

"San Miguel, a small town void of cellular service tucked amongst the jungle brush over 50 kilometers from the nearest city, has experienced generational transition on the front of womanhood; Across generations, traditional gender roles went from commonplace to controversial as women began filling jobs in the workplace and deflecting the expectation of early marriage.

We went from hilltop homes to local workplaces to get real with San Miguel women about their experiences with mothering, sexism, and patriarchy in their lifetimes. They opened up to us about the most beautiful and painstaking things about being a woman through retellings of their years of experience.

What is the role of women in San Miguel?

“It’s not like before where men used to work and women stayed in the house, cleaning and cooking,” says Noris, a chef in the kitchen of the local Kalu Yala Institute. “Almost all women here in San Miguel work. Some men think that women are trying to surpass men. But really, we just want to be independent. We work because we want to have our own things and not depend on a man — at least I’m one of those . . . I like to be free, in that sense.”

Handi shares that growing up, her and her sisters “worked the field. We had to work with machetes, as if we were boys. Five women were born first, and the boys were born later, so we had to take on the hard work.”

All women interviewed affirmed that this generation of women is the first to collectively fill major roles in the community workplace. We consequentially asked them how this resonated with the men in San Miguel. Noris informed us each household feels differently:

“Some men definitely like it, because that way the expenses of the home can be fair. There are other men that do not want women to go to work because they feel jealousy, because there are women that are [better] prepared, and have good jobs. Sometimes [the men] are not that prepared, or do not have such a good job as women.”

“[Women] work because we want to have our own things and not depend on a man — at least I’m one of those. If I ever have to ask my husband, he’s always like, “for what?” and “How much?” I like to be free, in that sense.”

In November of 2015, TeleSur published a Panamanian gender equality analysis based on numbers released by the United Nations Development Program, which reported a 26% gap in employed women compared to employed men.

“Martin Santiago, UNDP resident representative in Panama, said lack of empowerment, opportunities and poor access to the labor market have created a ‘Panama for men and not for women.’”

The tensions between matriarch and patriarch weren’t limited to employment conflicts — Handi, the custodian at the local elementary school, disclosed her domestic struggles with men beginning early in her life.

Handi shared with us her wholesome Christian upbringing, where she was taught traditional values by her parents. When Handi attempted to replicate this in her own marriage and children, things began to fall apart. The state of her marriage was wonderful initially in early years, recalling that her husband treated her with great respect before he began to wander.

“I’ve lived things. Sad things. My loneliness has made me a sad woman. Under this mask, inside, there is another woman. There’s the one who has to go to the street and smile to everyone. And under, there’s a sad woman. Like, a failed woman.”

“We started having issues because he started to see another woman. . . I would say that he killed me. When a woman lives with [a man who has] another woman, they hurt you so bad that you feel that your life is over. And then after that point, life completely changed for me.”

What do you feel is the status of abuse and violence against women in your community?

Handi insists that she is not alone; that infidelity occurs throughout the San Miguel community, and if we went home-to-home, we would discover that most women are being abused or have failed marriages.

“Sexism, there is so much sexism here in San Miguel. . . I feel that men don’t want to have a wife. They want to have a slave, maybe. Nowadays, I feel most women are living like that. We live not knowing if we’re gonna be abused or abandoned by our husbands. And not even just here, I think that’s worldwide.”

In the UN Women’s Global Database on Violence against Women, all three categories for abuse of women in Panama, including Lifetime Non-Partner Sexual Violence, Physical and/or Sexual Intimate Partner Violence in the last 12 months, and Lifetime Physical and/or Sexual Intimate Partner Violence were listed as not available.

In a past study of reported rapes, Amnesty International found 654 rape cases were reported from January from October in Panama, but that “few alleged perpetrators were held accountable because victims and witnesses were unwilling to come forward due to fear of violence by their husbands, other relatives and the police.” This lack of recognition and reporting of assaults keeps headway from manifesting, leaving local women in the same hole.

“I felt as if I didn’t love myself, as if I was useless. I felt like trash. Like, as if I had no value at all. As the years went by that I was together with [my husband], [things] started to change. He gave me value, importance, that even though bad things happen, life is worth living.”

We found that Handi’s claim rang true as we discussed violence against women with the rest of the community. When Noris was 6, her mother wished to acquire land, thus moving her to the Darien Gap. The gap is a 3,000 mile expanse of legendarily dangerous, nontraversable land connecting Panama and Colombia, ridden with a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)-motivated drug trade through which cocaine is smuggled to the United States.

Her life there posed innumerable challenges. “When we got there, there was nothing. We didn’t know anyone. I was by myself. I was the only one who was attending school.” Noris partook in a four-hour daily commute through the jungle to school aback a mule, while also facing the struggles of not being able to afford food for the entire school day and not having any shoes or uniform.

The greatest struggle, shared by Noris, was the relationship her mom had entered with a man from the Darien, as Noris’ father was home in Chiriqui. She disclosed that from ages six to twelve, this man had raped her several times, weakening her mentally and emotionally.

Noris moved back to Chiriqui at age thirteen and begun working thereafter and rebuilding herself, with her husband Andreas’ help. “You need to put things inside and forget about all of the troubles and bad things. And I feel I could do that because he was with me. Thank God he’s a good man. I’d turn around, and he’s always there, having my back.”

What was your upbringing like?

Nani, Noris’ next door neighbor, recalled her father’s illness, during which she worked to sell all of her belongings so he could afford to see a proper doctor. Handi shared the beauty of her simple lifestyle in the countryside, surrounded by wholesome Christian ideals supported by two faithfully devoted parents.

Sophie, the general manager of La Taverna del Rio, told us about her early life working on her father’s farm, tearing up reminiscing on the immense difficulty she suffered through. Three out of the four women interviewed stopped attending school after sixth grade. According to Unicef, the percentage of females attending primary school fell from 97 percent to 71 percent when looking at secondary school attendance.

When asked to look onto the future of their children, they all shared that they worked hard so that their children would not have to suffer as they had.

What is mothering like in San Miguel?

“The women in San Miguel are hardworking, they are fighters, and basically it’ s all about working for your kids. There are a lot of single mothers. A lot of single mothers have worked with me at [my restaurant,] La Fonda. I’ ve always tried to give them advice about how we have to work for good things to develop ourselves, to progress.”

All four women stated that being a mother is the most “beautiful” thing you can be, but it is also the most difficult thing. Because of the considerable number of failed marriages within the community, single parenting is a common struggle in San Miguel.

Regardless of the marital status of each woman, they all work incredibly hard to be the backbone of their family and support their children.

“What do I want for my kids? The best. That’s why I sacrifice myself so much, so they don’t have to go through what I’ve been through and work as hard,” says Sophie, whose restaurant is a family operation that she built from the ground up, with her children and grandchildren all tackling the various tasks involved in serving, cleaning, and cooking. She hopes that her children will carry on the business once she retires, and pass it down through the family line.

Nani explains that she wants her daughter to receive a proper education that will give her more opportunity outside of San Miguel. Not just for her daughter, though; for all the local children. “The same way I want my daughter to have a good school and education, I want the other children as well to have that opportunity.”

“If you don’t know English here, you don’t know anything. My hopes with my daughter are that she will become a professional. That’s the most important thing to me.”

Handi’s struggles with raising her children revolved around her attempts to replicate her own upbringing, which centered around traditional Christian values, onto her children.

“It’s difficult. I was always controlling about where not to go, not to go far. ‘You cannot do this, you can’t, you can’t,’ constantly. Now my children ask me, ‘Why didn’t you let me go out? Why did you restrict us so much?’ and many times I cried, because I feel I didn’t give them freedom. Now I realize that being a mother is taking care of children, but at the same time it’s accepting the danger.”

Even towns far-removed from plugged-in city life face influence from pop culture and typical adolescent pressures. “Our children don’t know what the bible says, but they know every TV show available. Our children don’t know to respect the elderly, but if you ask them about their favorite shows or every music video, they’ll tell you about it,” shared Handi.

Handi hopes her children will find a relationship with God, as her early efforts to instill faith into their upbringing did not go as she had hoped. None of her three children left the house married, which is traditional practice in Panamanian Christian families. In 2016, UNICEF global databases released that 26% of Panamanian women interviewed between ages 20–24 were married before the age of 18.

Handi shares, “I would like for the bars to stop existing. It’s getting very influenced by this. I really worry about the youth. If we could eliminate that, I think it would be perfect for San Miguel. It’s so beautiful, but I think it would be even greater [without them].”

The bars were often identified as a problem in the community, both for marriages and raising upright children. It is also frowned upon for women to go to the bars in San Miguel. Sophie shares that her dream would be a restaurant with food, but no alcohol. La Taverna del Rio currently has a bar attached to it.

“[Now], love does not exist. It’s not there anymore, because our children are not learning it. That’s why we have the world that we have right now. We’re leading to a big catastrophe.”

Do you have advice to women who are struggling and going through a hard time?

Noris assures these women that it will get better. Even with exposure to trauma in early years, she has found a healthy support system in her husband. “The day I got married, I was scared but I felt as if God had given me a new opportunity to continue living. It was the happiest day of my life because it gave me a reason to move on.”

Handi warns women against the potentiality for finding a new husband after a divorce, explaining that the shifting of people in and out of the household will cause pain for young children. “Kids are suffering quietly, they may see their mom or dad are really happy with this new partner, even though they do not like how it feels or they don’t get along as well and they don’t feel as good about the situation, they’re not gonna say it because they don’t want their parent to be sad, so they just suffer in silence.”

“The day I got married, I was scared but I felt as if God had given me a new opportunity to continue living.”

Sophie urged these girls to continue to be strong through this time, as it is crucial to support their family. Their children need them and look to them at this time to provide, and they must not fail them.

“Do not give up. When you commit to something like having children, maybe you don’t have the help of a father. Keep going, do not give up, that’s all that I can say to anyone. Just progress, continue. It’s our only option.” ★