by Sonam Rikha
Maria Belen Navarro, 26 years old, mestiza (Ecuadorian), born and currently lives in Quito
So tell me about your childhood
My childhood, let’s see. I had a very beautiful childhood with a very big family. My mom and dad’s siblings would always gather for family gatherings and I think I was raised with lots of love from my family. For that, I am very grateful.
What was it like growing up as a woman in Ecuador?
Growing up as a woman in Ecuador was very difficult. There are a lot of stereotypes and cultural patterns that go against you as a woman. Here in Ecuador, women are expected to stay at home cooking, cleaning, and looking after their family. They don’t have the right to work or study. This is something that has changed with time, but there is still change to be made. We have a culture here in Ecuador that is very hypermasculine, which can cause a lot of problems with kids. Since they are small, they are taught that a women’s role is cooking, washing, and ironing. We try to teach them that they have rights such as education, liberty, the right to make decisions, and the right to sex education. All of this has been a long process, but I think that little by little we are reaching this goal. So there has been a change.
I think that in the rural areas it is more prominent, but in the city, we are more educated. In all families and all socioeconomic classes and all provinces, this reality exists. This reality of hypermasculinity. That is exactly why now –– we are trying to raise girls' voices and help them make decisions themselves. The amount of violence in our country is very high because of this hypermasculine society. Seven girls every day give birth due to an unplanned pregnancy because of rape. Girls between the ages of ten and fourteen are really just girls that are having other girls. This is something that is super prevalent. Ecuador is second in teenage pregnancies in Latin America. These stats are very worrying and alarming.
Can you think of a time you felt particularly aware of your gender and how it led you to be treated?
In that sense––I did grow up with the stereotype that girls play with dolls and that boys play with cars. Girls like the color pink and boys like the color blue. So, I grew up being aware that I was a girl and that I had to like these things. Now with all the things that I have learned, we know that things don’t have to be that way. Girls can also like the color blue and there is nothing wrong with that. So I think that since I was a girl I knew that my gender was female. But of course, those are stereotypes that should change.
What would you say you are most passionate about/enjoy doing?
Well..my work fascinates me. My passion is working with teenagers. They have many dreams and much to give to the world and society in general. I am a very family-centered person. I love spending time with my family. I have a niece that’s 6 years old. I love playing with her. I love to go out, travel, and discover new places.
Tell me about a time you empowered yourself.
The time I felt the most empowered was exactly in this job, Youth Ambassadors. I was 24 years old when I started to work. I started one month before the trip to the U.S was supposed to take place. At 24 years old, I was the coordinator of thirteen Ecuadorian teenagers that were planning to go abroad with two mentors. At the time, I felt a lot of responsibility and I was able to accomplish it. We noticed a wonderful exchange. We had an unforgettable experience. Each one of these exchanges helps me grow as a person and feel more empowered. Because of this job, I have to travel a lot. Before I was very dependent and now I have become more independent. I go out and do things for myself and I think that is what makes me the happiest.
If you could go back in time to when you were dealing with this experience, what would you tell yourself?
When they told me I had to travel with these teenagers, I thought, “I really can’t do this. How am I going to be able to manage a group of adolescents?” What I would tell myself at the time in which I thought that I wasn’t capable of doing so––is that you can do anything with effort and dedication and love, because I think that everything you do should be done with love. With these qualities, you can do anything in life. If you are constant and perseverant, you can accomplish it.
Do you have any advice for girls who are trying to empower themselves?
I think something that is very important to tell these girls is that there is a way to make all your dreams come true. We can let ourselves be discriminated against or feel like we are less for being women because we are told that we are weak. They tell us that we can’t do it. We should not listen to any of this. We, as women, have so much power and strength. So I think that what is most important is bringing these strengths forward and knowing that we can make all of our dreams come true.
Who taught you the importance of empowerment?
Always in my house, there was the idea that we had to be empowered, work, study, and excel at what we do. However, in these three years, I learned true empowerment, especially female empowerment, through Plan International. There I learned the true meaning of empowerment and my own empowerment. I am very thankful for my job...I was able to empower myself and understand how to relay that empowerment to the girls and youth in Ecuador and the rest of the world as well.
Why is empowerment important to you?
I think that empowerment is the most important thing to me. An empowered woman can accomplish so much. She can do anything she sets her mind to. That goes hand in hand with self-esteem. For example, at all of our trips with Plan International, we work a lot with helping girls have higher self-esteem and a sense of empowerment so that they can succeed and believe in themselves. When they can believe in themselves, they can achieve all of their objectives.
What do you enjoy and appreciate about being a woman?
As I said, women have so much power and we can do so many things at the same time. Things that men can’t do. Women have that maternal side to them as well as a professional side that can get along and interact so well. I think that love that women put into what they do and that professionalism brings out the best in women to fight for what they want. That support that we have for one another.
How can the international community help you and your community in a legitimate way? Is there anything you’d like us to know so we can share it with our Global Girlhood community?
I think that something that can really help is giving girls and youth different opportunities to grow –– programs that they could be a part of. Here, there is a lack of programs that girls can be a part of. These programs are a great way to help them believe in themselves. I think that there can be more workshops and training for schools that don’t cover these topics. We can work on providing these workshops to these communities through help from abroad, where these resources are more developed. The new feminist movement and their progress could be brought to Ecuador as well as experience from your organization.
CONNECTIVITY CONTRIBUTOR REACTIONS
"Reading Maria’s story, I learned about the struggles of women in Ecuador. A similarity between myself and Maria is that I am Puerto Rican, and that side of my family is more old school. They think that women need to like stereotypical things such as the color pink and playing with dolls. I never felt that those roles identified with who I was. I like things that are not “typically” for girls, like blue, video games, and wrestling. This is where I feel the connection with Maria. Even though those roles were not pushed on me, I know what it is like to be expected to be what people expect a woman to be.
One thing that moved me from Maria’s story was the fact that she was able to go out and become independent, and she found that through doing something that she loves. Even though she doubted herself at first, she was able to overcome it and have an amazing experience. This shows me that I can do this for myself and inspires me to become independent in doing what I love to do, whatever that may be in the future. Her story shows me just how powerful and wonderful women can be and all that we have to offer the world. Even though there are struggles with being a woman, like experiencing stereotypes against you and having people underestimate you, we cannot let this get us down and we should use that as fuel to power through our obstacles."