One of the most beautiful and amazing places I have ever been isn't the place you might think in Central America. Before my last trip, a co-worker from El Salvador referred to my destination as "the poor country in Central America." What makes this even a little more odd is that I was headed to probably the poorest place in the "poor country." Over the past two years I've been twice to Nicaragua, and both times I got to work, play and get dirty with the residents of La Chureca.
The name has a beautiful ring to it, but La Chureca is the city trash dump in Managua, Nicaragua. In it there is a community of about five hundred people working and living in the dump. When I first rode in, the view was breathtaking to say the least. As our car followed a dump truck, a friend explained that those who work in the dump follow the trucks and pick through the trash to find anything of value. Something to eat, sell, recycle or use in their homes. We continued to drive past the cows and horses walking along the make shift road between the mountains of trash. It wasn't until a little girl, Ileana, came up to our car and invited us to her shanty house that we stepped out of the car.
The family was made up of about nine children and we ended up playing music and (of course) soccer with the kids and younger adults. It wasn't until I left that I started to think about how gender affects one's life in the dump. I found, after asking others who I was with, that child prostitution was rampant in the trash dump. From as early as nine years old the girls would be "earning" money for their families. That same little girl that we met who was so full of youth and fun loving energy, we later found out had already been exposed to the darker side of the dump. The child prostitution isn't limited to the girls. Often boys will walk around and almost act as little pimps for their sisters or others they know. When families are asked about it, they often support it as a way of helping support the family. To them it is an inevitable part of their lives.
In the dump the gender roles are laid out from the start. At a young age the children all play together, but as the boys get to be around ten years old, they break away from the girls and their families and take on roles similar to their older brothers or fathers. While I hate to make a generalization, most men don't do the work in their families, abandon their families, or abuse members of their families. One person I interviewed about the dump who had worked there said that 99% of all of the females had been a victim of some form of abuse.
While on the surface it looks like a very male driven community, inside the house it flips and the woman is not only the one taking care of the house chores, but also doing the work out in the dump. The men have no actual power, aside from physical strength in the relationship.
What I saw in the dump was gender roles that imprisoned both genders. Women do almost all of the work yet are abused and seen as less than a man. Boys, as they grow older, are forced to conform into a tougher more hegemonic masculinity and are conditioned to act the way they do. This "hyper" division of gender hinders the community strength and makes the effort of relief to this area much harder.