The looks of incredulity on the faces of the women spoke more eloquently than words. I was in the small village of Huaca, high in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, near the border of Colombia. I had asked a group of 42 women about their need or desire for “family planning” and their response was clear and unanimous.
Chinese Refugees in Ecuador
I travel to Ecuador often to visit Chinese refugee women and their families who have found asylum there. These women were among those Chinese who fled the People’s Republic of China’s one-child policy and were imprisoned when their ship, the Golden Venture, ran aground. They were refused asylum in the United States but were granted refugee status in Ecuador. Part of the negotiations for that asylum in Ecuador included a promise that we would provide support for them.
On this particular trip, in June of this year, I visited the refugee women and their families, who have now joined them, and then spoke at a “Migration Conference” in Quito. After the conference, I spent a week visiting some of the frontier areas where refugees were pouring across the border from Columbia.
Caught in the Drug War
In Colombia, the villagers and migratory indigenous people are caught in the middle of the war on drug trafficking and rebel uprisings. Hundreds cross the border daily, literally fleeing for their lives. They come with what possessions they can carry. They flee villages that were burned and destroyed either by the drug barons, the rebels, or government forces fighting the rebels and the drug interests. Many have lost sons, daughters and husbands, for many casualties in these village battles are civilians. These women own the clothes on their backs and little else. Many of them had husbands who were killed or missing in the fighting and they have to provide for their children alone. Some gain legal status, but many are illegal. They cannot afford the cost of registration as a legal refugee and so cannot apply for jobs. Many of these people live on a barter system and by modern standards they had been “poor” before the violence destroyed their villages. Now they have lost everything and are the “poorest of the poor.” In addition Ecuador, their source of safety, is just beginning to bottom out of economic free fall. Last year, before the government took the nation to the dollar standard, the value of the “Sucre” plunged from 5,000sc per dollar to 34,000sc per dollar.
I have spent much time debating the need for “population control” with well meaning but misinformed people. These refugee women were perfect examples of those that many would say needed “reproductive health services.” Since I would be conducting a survey of women in South Africa for Population Research Institute, I decided to do a little “beta” testing of survey questions with these women.
Three Simple Questions
I asked them three simple questions. What are three things you worry about most often? What are your three greatest needs? What can I do to help you the most? They worried about their children, their husbands, family members they had become separated from, and about living in a strange place. Their need most frequently mentioned was blankets and warm clothes. Ecuador straddles the equator and it crosses by the Andes Mountains, so the climate varies from tropical to very cold in the higher altitudes. Huaca is high and cold and the women were sleeping on cold floors. The next need most often mentioned was for jobs or a way to provide for their families. A close third was medicine or health care for their children. Other mentioned needs were food, housing, and money to pay for registration to become “legal.” Without legal status you cannot work.
I asked a woman who had 15 children what I could do to help her most. She requested help not for herself, but for her youngest child. The baby had a cleft lip and was thin because he could not nurse properly. This woman’s greatest worry was not that she had too many children to care for, but that her older children were grown and would soon leave. She would miss them! (We found a doctor in nearby Tulcan, who agreed to operate on the child for a minimum fee. which we paid.)
Reproductive Help? No Thanks!
After recording all the responses to the first questions, I ventured to ask them a question that got to the heart of the “reproductive heath care controversy.” I asked them, “If I could provide a way for you to have fewer children, or no more children, or to not be pregnant if you are pregnant, would you be interested in that?” That was when they started looking at me like I was from Mars. They spoke among themselves and the looks were not friendly. Then one woman spoke for all. “You understand nothing, Stupid American!” For much of the interviews I deferred to my friends for accurate translation of Spanish or Quechua but this last statement came through clearly enough for a “gringo” with halting Spanish to understand. They did not want my offer of contraceptives, condoms, abortions or my interference in their “reproductive health.” The “reproductive right” that these refugee women wanted was the right to not have me interfere in their reproductive lives! They got it right! They understood that children are a blessing. More children mean more minds to plan the future, more hands to share the work and more hearts to share joy and sorrow. These women had lost family members to violent deaths, but they understood that their children were the promise that there still would be a tomorrow.
Send Food — Not Condoms
Our government sends condoms when refugees need food, and contraceptives when they need medicine. In that small village, less than $500 arranged for a lifesaving operation for one small child. That mother asked for our help to save her child, not for contraceptives. The medical help she needed had nothing to do with family planning and yet we still spend millions of dollars providing contraceptives when women ask for medicine. I didn’t like being grouped with those who “speak for women” but have no idea of their lives, needs and wants. But I am an American and, like it or not, how we use our “AID” represents us, Perhaps we are “Stupid Americans.”
Pat McEwen is the coordinator of Life Coalition International in Melbourne, Florida.
The Views of the Women of Ecuador
What are three things you worry about most often?
Children, husbands, family members separated from them, & about living in a strange place.
What are your greatest needs?
Blankets and warm clothes.
Jobs or a way to provide for their families.
Medicine or health care for their children.
Food, housing, and money to pay for registration to become legal in order to get work.