Friday, January 14, 2011

Women in Education

This year Peace Corps Nicaragua is running a 3-day youth retreat to foster leadership skills in 100 young people from around the country. The other day I was in the home of an 18-year-old girl from my community who I am hoping will be able to attend the event. While making the invitation, I got to talking with her and her mother about the other children in the family. There are three girls, of whom the 18-year-old is the youngest, and two boys. The girls have all either finished or are attending college. One studied in the US and now runs an English-language institute. In contrast, neither of the two boys finished sixth grade. They are currently working construction in Costa Rica, and over the years they have alternated between working abroad and farming at home.

I have seen this type of situation in other families, too. In my host family it is only my host sister who has gone to college. Of her two brothers, only one finished high school. They have both worked in Costa Rica and have talked about going to the US. The one who finished high school was recently enrolled in a veterinary program, but he decided it was too much work for too little payoff, and he will be going back to Costa Rica as soon as he has the money to travel.

When I’ve talked to other volunteers, they have made the same observation: in contrast to what you read in the development literature, here it is the girls who stay in school, not the boys. Anyone who teaches in a rural Nicaraguan high school cannot help but notice that the majority of the students are girls. Some time after sixth grade the boys start dropping out to work in the fields with their dads. Yes, there are girls who get pregnant and stop coming to class, but many of them come back once they’ve had their babies; some even manage to go on to college, while their families help take care of their children. Once they’ve left, though, the boys rarely come back to school.

This situation is surprising to me, since everything I read before coming to Nicaragua suggested that when resources are scarce it is the boys who receive an education. I wonder, what is going on here? Machismo is alive and thriving in Nicaragua, so I don’t believe that this educational imbalance has to do with valuing girl children more than boy children. Instead, I think the cause is that even with a college education a woman still has less earning potential than a man. Furthermore, the boys are needed out in the fields to help with the family’s primary income-generating activity.

A college degree is no guarantee, either. I have seen my host sister struggle to find employment and work a low-paying job (albeit in her field) for a manager who takes advantage of her. Another young woman in town has a degree in computer engineering and can’t find work. Working in agriculture as day laborers or on their families’ plots men can still earn more than college-educated women, and the work they do is more vital to the family’s overall security, given that in addition to earning money, they produce food. Also, men are more empowered to go to Costa Rica or the US (though women do it too) to look for low-wage work abroad that pays more than any jobs pays domestically.

Maybe a better question than why it is that women tend to receive more formal education than men is what the outcome of this situation will be in the long term. There, I am completely stumped. Will it turn out that the tables will turn and women will become emancipated, more able to earn good salaries than men? Will the boys get left behind? Or will the current situation persist, with education failing to be linked to higher earning potential (at least for men) and education remaining mostly the province of women?

I should mention that these observations probably do not hold for city families. Still, I think there is something going on here in the rural areas. I also find it ironic to note that in the US it is now the case that more women than men earn advanced degrees. Although the farming economy and the pull of higher wages abroad cannot be the explanatory factors there, I wonder if there might be some other underlying factor common to both Nicaragua and the US that is causing women to seek more education than men. Any ideas?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Keeping An Open Mind

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s excellent book about the run-up to the housing and financial market crash of 2008, The Big Short. This topic is about as far removed from the reality of my community as anything could possibly be. Here, there is no such thing as housing speculation, and I doubt if the majority of the residents have even heard of the stock market. And yet, I found in the book’s epigraph a lesson that applies perfectly to my service. Lewis starts with a quote from Leo Tolstoy:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted [woman] if [she] has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent [woman] if [she] is firmly persuaded that [she] knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before [her]. (Pronoun changes are mine.)

Certainly, when trying to understand something as complicated as the housing derivatives market it is helpful to have a supple mind, but it is just as important to maintain this mental attitude in any endeavor in which one becomes complacent. I have only six months (!) left in my service, which means that I have been here for a year and a half and have completed three quarters of my term here. Recently, I have noticed a tendency in myself to think that I’ve been here long enough to understand how things work in this community. So when one of my bosses sent out an email saying that all of us in the ag sector needed to find three young people ages 15 to 25 to work on a garden with a drip irrigation system, my first thought was, “That will never work here.” The reason being that all the youth I know are either working in their families’ irrigated vegetable plots or are planning to work as day laborers cutting tomatoes, tobacco, or coffee. In other communities, where there is not so much activity during the dry season - here we are lucky to have a river, an abundance of land near the river, and many people who own diesel pump systems – this project would be a great way to provide an income-generating activity for local youth. But in my community, I thought, there are no youth available for this type of thing. When I asked some of the young people who live near me, they confirmed my preconceived notion.

But then, I thought, maybe I should approach this opportunity as I would if I hadn’t already been here for as long as I have, as if I didn’t think I had this community all figured out. So I went to the northern part of town, where the people tend to be a bit poorer, and I asked a teacher I have worked with if she knew any young people who might be interested in working with me on a gardening project for the dry season. She thought for a moment, and then she suggested a 19-year-old who is neither working nor attending school. I approached him, even though I’ve never worked with him before, and within a half hour he had assembled a group and found a place for us to put the garden. Obviously, I still have plenty to learn about this community. My goal for the next six months is to remember that.

I want my mind to be as open as this girl's