From Strong Girls to Strong Communities

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In the last few months, we have run two residential workshops for Shipibo girls and young women as part of our Intercultural Education initiative.

In November last year, Nomabaon Nete, our Shipibo-led sister NGO through which we channel all of our work with women and girls, ran their first 5 day workshop in the community of Santa Rosita with girls from 5 rural communities. In January of this year, we rejoined forces with Karen Hansen from the U.S. based NGO, ‘Girls for the World’, to run another 5 day workshop with girls from the community of Poayhan, five hours downriver by fast boat from Pucallpa.

Nomabaon Nete is a new NGO mentored by Alianza Arkana and run by Rebeca Melendez, a young Shipiba passionate about her culture, who has worked with us for five years. Rebeca has assisted Karen on ‘Girls For The World’ workshops for 5 years now, in organization and facilitation, learning about structuring workshops and becoming a leader and role model herself. Nomabaon Nete is inspired by ‘Girls For The World’, and is now an ever-growing framework through which our work with women and girls can continue to thrive.

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Thanks to support from Alianza Arkana and UNICEF, twenty Shipibo girls from the five native communities of Nuevo Palestina, Nuevo Bretaña, Aguas Negras, Santa Rosita and Betel participated in the November workshop. It took place in the school at Santa Rosita during the holidays. Through a mixture of practical and physical activities, presentations, theatre and art, the girls were able to explore and understand topics such as leadership, self-esteem, gender dynamics, violence against women, cultural identity, nutrition, plant medicine, environmental issues and reproductive health.

“When we talked about self-esteem most of the girls did not even know what it meant, they did not know that such a concept existed.” – Antonia, Alianza Arkana volunteer

Every morning a talking circle was held. This was a space in which the girls felt comfortable and were encouraged to speak up. Then there were stretching exercises to help them gain focus and strength, followed by full days of activities dealing with the various topics.

In order for the girls to learn about plant medicine, a core pillar in Shipibo culture, Maestra Anita, a local elder, was invited to hold the space for an afternoon. This involved talking them through the plants in her medicinal garden, encouraging them to pick, touch and draw them. She taught the girls the function and importance of several local medicinal plants and they each gave a presentation on what they had learnt. This practice and body of knowledge is an element of Shipibo culture that is slowly being lost as the interests and lifestyles of young Shipibos change.

Indias blogAnother part of the workshop addressed the ways in which Shipibo culture is changing. This focused on helping the girls gain pride in their identity, which is all too often subject to discrimination. Using Forum Theatre, the girls played out situations where either they or their families had experienced discrimination, and workshopped what their feelings were and how to deal with these encounters. This led to a discussion on the integration of the Shipibo-Conibo with the rest of the Peruvian population.

This theme was followed up with a workshop on the representation of women in the media using collage and drawing. With increased access to the internet, movies and magazines, these young women are now receiving falsified, Western images of beauty, success and validation on a regular basis. Indigenous women are effectively absent from Peruvian, and indeed global popular culture.

In addition, there is no critical thinking around these media channels and imagery whereby the girls could understand how they are constructed, airbrushed, and designed to sell products. For these girls, the images pushed at them through advertising and the media are all as real as the person they see in the mirror.

You can tell that the girls were proud of belonging to their communities but struggled when interacting with outsiders and speaking up, some lack social skills and confidence and this is what these workshops try to develop.” – Nine, midwife and homeopath.

Another key theme was gender dynamics. Abuse and violence against women is present in Shipibo communities so it is useful to present the girls with tools to stay strong, to help them stand by their principles and protect their own bodies. The girls also learnt about reproduction, the process of giving birth and methods of contraception.

In January, ‘Girls For The World’ (GFTW) returned and together we ran another 5-day residential workshop, this time with 21 girls from the community of Poayhan who travelled 12 hours to the Tierra Vida healing centre near Yarinacocha. These workshops are supported partly by GFTW and partly by Alianza Arkana. Our relationship with the community of Poayhan is a very important one to us at Alianza Arkana. This relationship deepened in a very important way through the workshop.

Indias blog 1Poayhan is a community that is the home to a powerful lineage of Shipibo plant healers with whom members of Alianza Arkana and our friends have worked closely over the years. Jealousy is very common in Shipibo communities, and often if one family is succeeding while others are barely making ends meet, it can create poisonous rifts. This has the potential to create problems in Poayhan largely to do with the money gained from healers’ work with foreigners, as is the case with many traditional healers nowadays. This year, we decided to take steps to even out the dynamic there, first in terms of recognizing our individual contributions to that divide, albeit unintentional. Therefore, this workshop was part of an initiative to give back to the rest of the community, in addition to setting up part of our online shop to trade embroidered textiles on behalf of the talented artesanias there.

This workshop again focused on gender dynamics, the building of self-confidence and on presenting the girls with tools to help self-expression.  These topics were workshopped through activities including theatre, role-play, dancing, singing, painting and spaces for conversation. Lizet Chavez Prado, a theatre teacher and practitioner from Lima, joined for the workshop and brought with her a valuable language of physical creativity. For the girls, the symbolism of a young woman from Lima caring about them in this way meant a huge amount, in a country where they are used to being considered at the bottom of the social ladder. A tender moment was shared when they realized where she is from – for Karen, who runs GFTW, it was one of the most powerful moments of the week.

The girls were able to express themselves in a safe space, to talk about how they felt and to ask questions about growing up that are often a taboo between the generations in this fast-shifting culture.

We were hoping to create an environment of trust, where the girls can lose their fear to speak and their shyness. We want them to able to participate, to have an opinion and realise that it matters. When the workshop began the girls rarely spoke and by the end of it they were expressing themselves much more fearlessly, some did not want to leave, they felt invested.” –  Luz, Rebeca’s older sister and mother of two, who also assisted and mentored in the workshop.

During the workshop the girls also received information about reproductive and sexual issues, led by Nine, a midwife and homeopath who has recently launched our Mobile Health Clinic. They were taught about the process of giving birth and being a mother and the responsibilities that arise from this. There was discussion around the question: ‘when is a healthy moment for a woman to become a mother’, given that there are many young teenage pregnancies in Shipibo communities.

It is important to emphasise that it is very often complicated to deal with these topics at home and within a very tight-knit community, so these workshops are a more neutral, safe space where the girls feel they can inquire freely and obtain valuable information. The story of how a woman gets pregnant is indeed a creative one amongst the Shipibo, and even women who are mothers themselves are often not sure of the biological process.

Workshops like these create an environment where girls are able to share and participate. A sacred space is created that revolves around sensitivity, communication and creativity, giving girls the chance to learn and strengthen themselves so they can then go on to share their knowledge with others in their communities.

2016 is an exciting year for our work with women and girls. In April, we will be welcoming Macarena, a young woman from Lima who will be with us for 9 months focusing on work with women and girls, supporting Rebeca and Luz to expand their workshops to older girls and mothers as well as opening a safe space/healing post where the girls can seek sanctuary and advice. They will be hosting more workshops using radical creativity and also working alongside our mobile health clinic that Indias blog 2has just been launched.

We have a third workshop in the pipeline that will involve Graphic storytelling, run by local graphic artist ChicoWasi. The girls will reflect on issues relevant to them and will be taken through every step of making their own zines; constructing narrative, characters, illustrations, dialogue, artwork, production and distribution.

Many Thanks to the Sixteenth Wagon Arts Group who designed and built the Barrio Loco Field at Boomtown Fair for their generous donation which has greatly helped to fund this work and the workshop on ‘Women in Movement: Animating Amazonian Realities’, which we wrote about in a previous blog .


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