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Brazil: More than itty-bitty bikinis

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Brazil – it’s a country known for its soccer fanatics, booming economy, and of course, its beautiful women. Last year, I spent two weeks exploring the barrios of Rio de Janeiro, drinking potent caipirinhas, and absorbing a cancerous amount of rays on the beaches of Buzios.

I’m embarrassed to admit that before my trip I built up a Hollywood image of the culture. I envisioned the country as an incessant party with scantily clad, Carmen Miranda-like women dancing in the streets.

Apparently, the idea that Brazil is full of topless women hanging out on the beaches is common among tourists – perhaps a contributing factor to speculation that Brazil has surpassed Thailand as the world’s top sex tourism destination.

I’m not sure how I conjured up such an unrealistic impression of the country. I’ve spent significant time living and traveling all over Latin America. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I noticed similar social disparities in Brazil.

Brazilian culture varies drastically by regional, ethnic, and tribal influences. Rio is severed by a dramatic poverty line which is especially apparent in the city’s infamous favelas. And the interactions of Brazilian men and women reveal hints of machismo attitudes.

Brazil stands out among the Latin American countries from a fiscal standpoint. The country boasts one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and its powerhouse size alludes to large amounts of untapped resources available for profitable development.

Recent events point toward changing dynamics. Brazil elected its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, in January 2011. It was also chosen as host for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, two events that will foster substantial increases in development and tourism.

So why had I focused solely on the appearance of the country’s female population?

According to native Brazilian, Alex Goncalves de Oliveira, local women are plagued by a stereotype that precedes them. Alex grew up in Tres Coracoes, a smaller city in the southeastern province of Minas Gerais. She says, “Most people think of Brazilian women as sex symbols, amounting to nothing more than itty-bitty-bikini-wearing, samba-dancing girls. But the ultimate irony is Brazil’s first female President is a strong leader, who’s a little plump, sports a boyish haircut, and has a deep, raspy voice.”

Alex believes the stereotype is perpetuated by the media and by the relationships between Brazilian men and women. Although she’s noticed improvement in recent years, Alex tells me about the ‘womanizing’ tendencies of Brazilian men. Cheating, spousal abuse, and alcoholism are common and somewhat socially acceptable. As in most societies, the reputations of women are easily bruised. The women have a lot more to overcome to get ahead.

Nicole Scholet, an American friend of mine, agrees Brazilian women suffer unjust labels, but admits the culture places an extreme focus on physical appearance. She spent two months living in Brazil when Lula was President and six months a year later under Rousseff.

Nicole says, “Brazil is such a place of paradoxes. Brazilian women care a lot about their appearance. They always wear makeup and do their hair. They never look scrubby – even if they’re walking to the corner store to buy bread. While I was living there, several people told me I would look better if I wore makeup more often.”

Nicole confesses, “Brazilians aren’t as judgmental about body types as Americans. Every woman (regardless of weight) wears a thong bikini, and it’s not considered scandalous or sexual. You never hear ‘She’s too fat for that swimsuit.’ In the States we make critical remarks about people, but in Brazil the focus on the female body tends to be in an appreciative way. As a woman, I felt way more attractive [in Brazil] than in the US.”

This focus on outward appearance contributes to foreign stereotypes, but may not be to the total detriment of Brazilian women. At least from an education perspective, Brazilian women don’t seem hindered by elements of machismoism in their society.

In Brazilian schools, females represent a majority at every grade level. Alex tells me, “Almost all the women in my family attended high school and went on to graduate college. My grandmother was widowed in her late 20’s and left with five mouths to feed. She became a school teacher and eventually the director of the school in her town. All of my female cousins graduated from university and some are working toward their Masters. Last year, one of my aunts got her PhD, and won Brazil’s top award for research in Journalism. Sadly, the men in our family have stayed behind. I can’t think of one who has graduated college.”

It will be interesting to watch the country’s progress over the next decade. The emphasis placed on the education of its female population will certainly help Brazil stay in the forefront of the emerging economies.

If Rousseff’s election as President is any indication, Brazil’s future political and business sectors will be filled with a powerful set of female leaders. I don’t predict their itty-bitty-bikinis going out of style anytime soon, but these women should be able to rid the nation of any stereotypes that don’t serve them well.

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Organization Profile: Women for Women International

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I’m very excited to announce I was selected as an Ambassador for Women for Women International!

Women for Women International (WfWI) is an organization dedicated to helping female survivors of war. The organization currently works with women in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, DR of Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Sudan – 8 countries where conflict has devastated the lives of many.

War evokes images of soldiers, tanks, and destruction, but some of the worst consequences are suffered by the women not on the frontlines. In modern day conflict zones females are frequent targets for violence. Rape is used as a weapon of war – a way to physically and psychologically harm opposing parties. Young girls spend the majority of their childhood in fear. They miss crucial education years, while suffering from poverty and health issues.

Women for Women was founded in 1993 as a result of the catastrophic Bosnian War, during which over 100,000 people were killed, 2 million people were displaced and 20,000 women were raped. Those of you who saw Angelina Jolie’s new film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” were recently reminded or, perhaps, made aware of the atrocities faced during the conflict. And although nearly two decades have passed, WfWI advocates ongoing support in the post-conflict area.

Since 1993, WfWI has helped 316,000 female survivors of war around the world transition from crisis to self-sufficiency. WfWI enrolls women in a one-year program and provides vocational training, financial education, healthcare, and legal and human rights awareness to all participants. Each participant is matched with a specific sponsor, who provides her a monthly stipend of US$30 and emotional support in the form of letters for the full year. The program allows participants to provide basic needs for their families, entrepreneur income generating activities, and build confidence in their abilities. 

The founder, Zainab Salbi, claims women are the pacemakers of society. The health of a nation parallels the well-being of its female population. When women are equipped with business education and awareness of their rights they are able to sustain an income, be healthy, make decisions, and build social and safety networks. In turn, these women become community leaders who foster peace and stability.

I’m thrilled to have the responsibility of spreading this message and making others aware of Women for Women’s mission! Look forward to information about ways you can get involved, how you can sponsor a participant, and a fundraising event I’ll be hosting this summer. In the meantime check out www.womenforwomen.org.

Finally some photos…

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Uploading just one photo in Nepal was a painful process that usually ended in failure due to routine power outages. Now that I’m back in the land of high speed internet all my photos are up! You can go to the Photos tab above or click here to look through the albums. Happy browsing!

Issue: Dowry Deaths and Bride Burning

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Asha is 28, university educated and unmarried. For a Nepali girl she’s deviated far from the accepted path. Asha finished university with a degree in sociology and speaks fluent English. In discord with her parents, she refuses marriage proposals on a regular basis.

Asha works 12-14 hour days in the family business. Her brothers refuse to pay her. When they’re not looking, she takes her wages from the cash drawer. Every month she deposits the accumulated income in a secret savings account. It’s taken her 4 years to save US$1000.

I sit in a wicker chair, wrapped in a blanket with a cup of masala tea. Asha sits in the chair next to me. It’s late and most Nepalis are in for the night. Two boys play with sticks in the street, but Pokhara is quiet. One of the boys trips and tumbles into a bush. I laugh but I realize I’m the only one. I turn to Asha who looks overwhelmed with worry.

“Hey, ash, are you okay?”

She sighs deeply. “I don’t want this life,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

Latent panic enters her voice, “I don’t want my life to turn out like the rest of the girls here.”

I reassure her, “Don’t worry. It won’t.”

“Have I told you about my sister?”

“You have a sister?” I’ve been in Pokhara for a month. I’ve met all her family members and no one had mentioned a sister.

“Yeah, she died.” Her eyes swell with tears. “Svara. She was 3 years younger than me.”

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A special thank you to Nicholas Kristof

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My initial inspiration for this trip was a book. I spent a night curled up on the couch in my Nashville apartment unable to put it down. The book was Half the Sky by Pultizer Prize winning couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. When I finished the last page, I remember thinking: I can’t ignore this. I have to find a way to help. And, it has to be now. Six months later I graduated university a year early and booked a flight to Asia.

This week I was fortunate enough to attend the RFK Ripple of Hope Gala in New York and meet Nicholas Kristof in person. I practically ambushed him as he was leaving the building and we had a 2 minute conversation about my project and his work. He was extremely friendly and sincere. I left the gala with a huge, giddy smile plastered to my face, feeling like my journey had come full circle. That face-to-face recognition was plenty.

But yesterday I learned Mr. Kristof posted a link to my blog on his twitter page. In a mere 12 hours it directed over 3000 people to my blog. For this, I cannot thank him enough.

If you are a new reader to Skirting the Limits, please keep following! My next post will be about bride burning in Nepal, India and Pakistan. But, for now, I’d like to turn your attention to a wonderful TED Talk video featuring Kristof’s brilliant wife Sheryl WuDunn. Enjoy!