My preparation for a summer interning for MEDLIFE did not just involve figuring out how to fit three months worth of clothes into one suitcase under 50 lbs (something I am ashamed to say I did not accomplish), but it also involved some mental preparation. In Lima, MEDLIFE mainly works in slum settlements where many families do not even have running water or electricity, and deal with challenges I have never known in my life. Knowing this coming into my summer experience, I had the expectation that I would see many inspiring things throughout my time with MEDLIFE, as well as things that break your heart.
Nevertheless, come my first Mobile Clinic week, I was still shocked to see multiple girls a day in their early teens who were pregnant or already had a child. Legally these girls are not adults yet, but many of them are raising their babies alone. Some, but not all, of the men in the area are of the opinion that things like pregnancy and STI’s are women’s problems. Unfortunately, cases like these are all too common among women living in poverty.
Fortunately, I have seen communities recognize and work to fix these problems. During the Mobile Clinics in Lima, we take students on a tour of the Pamplona Alta region in the district of San Juan de Miraflores. Part of the tour includes a visit to the police station. Officers have told us that domestic violence is one of the main problems in the area. Though all members of the family can be victims of abuse, most of the cases are of abuse against women in the family. Many of the women do not report this abuse because they do not think that anyone will do anything to help them. In an effort to reduce domestic violence, the police station holds programs for women and children in the hopes of improving the community mindset for future generations. The hope is that teaching women about their rights will help empower them and break the cycle of family violence that usually spans across generations.
Though women in the communities we work in face many challenges in their lives, they also have a strong influence in their communities. During my time visiting the slum settlements of Lima I began to notice government-sponsored work programs that were staffed mostly, if not entirely, by women. One of these is a comedor, or community kitchen, program where local women prepare a nutritious lunch that community members can buy for a low price. These kitchens are set up by the Peruvian government, which also subsidizes certain food items. I visited one of these kitchens with one of MEDLIFE’s patient follow-up nurses, Meri Lecaros, as we were delivering PAP exam results in the area. The comedor not only serves as a good economic opportunity for the women in the area, but also as a community center. At the comedor, we were able to return many of the PAP results to the women gathered there, as well as find out where to deliver the remaining patients’ results. Work programs like these provide a means for community improvement while giving individuals a chance to improve their family’s financial situation.
My work as an intern also gave me insight into the influence women have regarding community acceptance of medical care. At clinics, patients have the opportunity to sign up to go to general medicine, dentistry, and to the obstetrician. Many times women who had initially only signed up for general medicine came up to me later to ask if they could also sign up to see the obstetrician or dentist after having talked to their friends about it. My observation of women as important agents in the promotion of community health care is hardly anything new; a 1997 report from the Gender Equality Unit of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency states:
Women play a crucial role in informal health care in low-income households and communities in their role as wives and mothers, and continue to be used as conduits to children in promotional and preventative health campaigns, for example around nutrition and immunization.
This summer, the plight of women in the communities MEDLIFE works in particularly struck me because I saw myself in them. As a young woman from an affluent area of the United States, I have never and probably will never have to face the daily struggles that many of the women I saw and talked to this summer have faced. This stark contrast has made me thankful, and at the same time very aware of how global poverty is an important and relevant issue in our lifetime, even if we are not directly affected by it.