Enrock’s eyes rose slowly from his clasped hands and a smile spread across his face as he began to speak. Enrock is a thirteen year old boy who attends my healthy lifestyles club called Modern Malawians. That day, we were discussing love and sex. Is there a difference? Can you have sex without love or love without sex? The conversation had turned to sexual impulses and a man’s “right” to sleep with a woman. Enrock explained his thinking with a confident smile, “If a woman isn’t covering her legs or somehow exposes her private parts, the man has the right to have sex with her. When he gets an errection, there is nothing else he can do. It is out of his control.” As soon as his words were spit into the air, my jaw dropped. Before the lesson, we were chatting innocently about his family and siblings. Now, he had transformed into a sexual offender disguised in a boy’s body. Still very much a child with not even a dusting of peach fuzz above his lip, Enrock’s beliefs towards sex were, in my mind, horribly corrupted. Yet, when I looked around the classroom, I noted that the other children shared his sentiments. Many were nodding and when I asked again if a short skirt meant guaranteed sex for a man, the kids all said yes. Furthermore, when I inquired whether there was a difference between love and sex, there was a resounding no. “Madame,” one child opined, “There’s no difference between love and sex. For example, if a woman does not want to have sex with her husband for fear of getting HIV, then she does not love him.”
Hearing such statements truly hurt my heart. I tried to persuade the students to think about love in a different manner by creating a list of all the ways you can show affection for someone without having sex. (Helping them at the farm, caring for them when they’re sick, making them laugh, etc). Still, I can’t definitively say that the message was received. Most people in my village marry at extremely young ages, often for monetary reasons. Was it possible that the kids just didn’t know what love is? Have they never seen a healthy relationship before? I had wanted to work with youth because I hypothesized that the unhealthy habits of their parents would not have trickled down to them yet, but my theory was disproved. Hearing the kids’ comments affirmed my decision to create such a club but disturbed me deeply. While the US isn’t perfect, I can’t imagine growing up in a society where the “uncontrollable” actions of a man are widely accepted and furthermore, blamed on how a woman presents herself.
Enrock’s opinions have since sparked discussions with friends about not only gender roles but cultural imposition. Yes, the majority of Americans probably believe that his stance is terrible (I hope!), but his stance is a manifestation of the culture that Enrock was raised in. For hundreds of years, his people have thought about sex in that manner. Now as Peace Corps volunteers, it’s our duty to come in and change those long-standing beliefs? Is it also our duty to change the traditional, quite submissive greeting that women give to men- deeply rooted in Malawian culture? Should we encourage farmers to plant a foreign crop that we have in some way deemed “better” than what they have always harvested and consumed? Where do we draw the line between development and cultural retention? While PCVs aim to work with local leaders to address community needs in a sustainable fashion, it is still easy to feel like a “white savior” who is helping the community to achieve Western-determined progress. I am confident that the lessons on healthy relationships and gender that I am teaching will help Malwian culture evolve in a positive way, but keeping in mind our delicate role as development workers in a foreign culture is greatly important.