A Funky Week

This week has been… interesting.

It started out great. I had an absolutely wonderful time at our 4th of July picnic/field day. The PC staff put together a field day that involved each of the programs (Health, English Teachers, and Youth and Families) competing against each other in volleyball, basketball, and soccer. They even had a kind of beauty queen competition. Even though I am not, well, athletically gifted, I still had a blast cheering my teammates on. The spirit of the day was just fun. Each group bought team jerseys, and a bunch of us even painted our faces. We also had a potluck, which meant a ton of yummy food for everyone. It was a nice relaxing day, just walking around chatting, cheering people on, snacking on brownies, etc.

On Tuesday, we had a workshop on HIV and AIDS (VIH/SIDA). It was one of my favorite days of training so far. We were fortunate enough to have our PC staff member from Guayaquil, some current volunteers working in HIV/AIDS, and an Ecuadorian activist who is currently living with HIV. It was a dynamic and interesting day filled with all kinds of learning. We learned the basic science about how HIV and AIDS can affect the body, and how it is transmitted. We participated in different activities that we could use in the field. We learned how to give condom demonstrations in Spanish. We also discussed the Ecuadorian social context of HIV/AIDS. We learned about the feminization of HIV due to gender dynamics here. We heard about the lack of condom use. Let me elaborate.

Because Ecuador has a heavy Catholic population/influence, sex education here has been fairly conservative. We’ve heard from some current volunteers that even with sex ed as part of the school curriculum, the teachers can be uncomfortable discussing it, making for a sex ed class that could be lacking. The importance of using condoms to prevent HIV may not be as emphasized as it should be. Proper use of condoms may also not be explained… our staff members told us that men or teenage boys have actually admitted to reusing a condom, or they use two at the same time because they think two is better than one. Obviously both of these uses are incorrect and can make the condom less effective or completely ineffective in preventing STIs or unwanted pregnancy. Another issue surrounding sexual health, HIV prevention, and condom use is embarrassment or fear of gossip. Even though condoms are technically free through the Ministry of Public Health, issues arise. Ecuadorians (most often but not limited to teenagers) are afraid to be seen receiving condoms from their health clinic. This is most prominent in smaller towns where everyone knows everyone and the woman working at the front desk of the clinic could be your Aunt’s neighbor. Since they are embarrassed to receive them, they don’t have any, and they don’t use them. Another issue is that sometimes the health clinics do not receive a supply of condoms on a regular basis, so they could run out.

Another issue surrounding sexual health and HIV is the gender dynamics here in Ecuador. Machismo describes the culture of male superiority and lack of empowerment of women in Ecuador as well as other South or Central American countries. The culture of machismo creates several norms that have led to the feminization of HIV and a rising number of new cases in married couples. According to our staff, about 10 years ago, the rate of new HIV cases was about 17 men to 1 woman. Now, that statistic is 2 men for every one woman. The cycle of poverty is part of the issue. Girls often become pregnant at a young age- anywhere from 12 years old onward. By the time they are 18 many girls will have anywhere between 1 and 3 children. The fathers of these children are typically older, between the ages of 20 and 40. Having children at an early age causes the girls to drop out of school, which then leads to their financial dependence on men. Here comes the power dynamic: these girls rely on the men for financial support, have a minimal education, are younger, and due to marriage are often socially isolated from peers or other forms of social support. If these girls stay in a marriage, there is a high rate of infidelity. A spouse will have unprotected sex outside of their marriage, contract HIV, and then pass it to their partner. Interrelationship rape (without the use of a condom) is also a possibility. Some men here feel they have the right to have sex with their wives, whether their wife wants to or not. Staying with the fathers is not always the case though. And, if these girls are left without a man for financial support, they may become sex workers, once again increasing their risk of HIV.

Speaking of the sex industry in Ecuador…the power dynamics of this industry also leads to the feminization of HIV. Brothels are legal here. Sex workers must receive a health card to work. In order to maintain the card they must come in for health exams and are also provided with contraceptives. A certain attitude is cultivated in men from an early age. It is common for pre-teen or teenage boys as young as 11 or 12 to be taken to a brothel by an older male in their family as a rite of passage. Staff members have also heard stories of men paying substantially more in order to bribe the women into skipping the condom.

Now, what is life like for an Ecuadorian citizen living with HIV? First, let’s talk stigma. There are still huge HUGE myths floating around HIV in Ecuador. This can make transmission more possible (due to lack of education) and also make life difficult for people living with HIV. Some things commonly heard here about HIV: it is contagious (like the flu or something), it is spread through mosquitoes, you can tell by looking at someone if they have HIV (people with HIV always look sick), and many, many more. A great indicator: even though it is illegal, many, many, companies require candidates to receive HIV tests and show them the negative result. With the attitude about people living with HIV, it is no wonder that many people keep it a secret, even from their family and closest friends. With this in mind, let me tell you about medication. In the U.S. it is typical for a person diagnosed with HIV to start medication right away. However, here in Ecuador, a person may not receive medication until their CD4 count is below 250. In addition, this medication is distributed from a hospital in Guayaquil. This means that if you live 10 hours away, you have to take a 10 hour bus ride once a month to get your medication. Now imagine coming up with excuses to make that 10 hour bus ride if your family, friends, and coworkers do not know that you are being treated for HIV. In addition, throw in the complication of a serious shortage of medication, which means you might make that bus ride only to find out that there is no medication for you and you have to return in a few days to see if they have received a shipment for you. You can see why people living with HIV become discouraged and may even stop taking their medication, resulting in drug resistance if they wish to start a regimen again.

As you can see, we learned A LOT in just one day, and I am sure there is much more to learn. Regardless of whatever primary project I am assigned, all volunteers, especially health volunteers, are strongly encouraged to incorporate HIV/AIDS education and awareness into their service. I fully intend on doing so, thanks to everyone who helped run our workshop on Tuesday.

After Tuesday, things start to get weird. I have not really been sleeping well. I have been hit with a bit of homesickness recently. Nothing too, too major. I miss people; I miss the ease of communicating with and seeing friends and family. I miss Panera and Chipotle. I miss hanging out in the SGA office (ok I guess I would miss that regardless of where I was living, with that whole graduating thing). It kind of snuck up on me… I am not really sure what brought it on. In addition to this, I have growing anxiety/excitement/many miscellaneous feelings about my site placement, which I will receive on Wednesday and visit on Thursday. I am so excited to meet my community, to know where I will be living, what kind of work I will be doing, etc. Even though I logically understand the importance of extensive training, I have been itching to find out my site. Now that its approaching though, I am quite nervous. Many fears run through my mind. Logical Katrina knows that these are normal and will fade with time and adjustment. Emotional Katrina fears that my language will not be good enough, that I will not jive with my counterpart or host family, that if there was a previous volunteer there, the community will like him/her better, that I will not know what to do when I get there, etc. Like I said, all pretty normal, but I just can’t seem to shake them.

Yesterday especially I felt overly sensitive to every joke or language correction from my family, and I just didn’t know why. It seemed that I couldn’t do anything right, and I didn’t feel great physically either. It was not fun.

Luckily though, things change quickly around here. Today I hung out with my host mom while doing some laundry, which was nice and calming. Then, in a concentrated effort to remove myself from this strange mood, I obviously blasted middle school hits and 80s ballads while cleaning my room. In the afternoon, my host mom and I made some Russian Tea Cookies, a Christmas-time treat in the Organ/Pencek family. Baking with my host mom was hilarious. She is usually so confident in the kitchen, but she couldn’t quite figure out how I was making cookies without milk or water in the dough. She kept making jokes and we had a great time. This evening, my host mom got a chance to talk with my actual mom via skype (with a little help from my translating skills). This too was a really cool experience.

So, it seems thanks to patience, baking, and a little O-Town, the funk has passed just in time for my site visit this week. Thank goodness.


3 responses to this post.

  1. really interesting post, katrina….i can tell you learned a lot because i learned a lot just reading this post!!! glad you’re out of the funk…cookies and 80’s music will do that 🙂 miss you!


  2. Posted by Aunt Vicki on July 11, 2011 at 12:06 am

    Awe, sorry you were feeling sad there for a while but it is certainly understandable. You just got comfortable with your host family and now you have to pack up again and get used to another host family who knows where. There is nothing like baking and eating fresh baked cookies to make anyone feel better! Glad you are feeling better and I can’t wait to read your next blog of where you are going to be. xoxoxo, Aunt Vic


  3. Posted by Mom on July 11, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    I would guess that feeling a little “funky” is normal. You have a great deal of things going on at once in addition to not knowing what the next few weeks will bring. I am glad that the funk is lifting and that the weekend ended on an upwards swing. I really had fun skyping with your host mom. I guess i have to start brushing up on my Spanish in anticipation of a trip to Ecudor.
    Will talk to you later in the week when you find out your assignment! Love you!


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