Interview with Paola Alvardo, CARE

This is an interview with Paola Alvardo, a CARE team member who works to tackle gender-based violence in Ecuador.

Can you explain your role at CARE in detail?

I’m working as a psychologist for women and girls in the south near Machala, Ecuador. I give immediate assistance to women who have experienced gender-based violence. I also work to support female migrants with a focus on the LGBTQ+ community.

Are there unique challenges LGBTQ+ women face in Ecuador?

Yes, LGBTQ+ women in Ecuador suffer a lot from discrimination. That’s why here in Ecuador it’s hard for women to get proper education, and CARE is working to fight for that. Also, it’s difficult for many women to find dignified work, so they tend to work as sex workers, which means there’s a higher likelihood of discrimination.

What are the conditions like for sex workers in Ecuador?

A lot of sex workers began working as sex workers after they experienced incest. They suffered rape inside their household, so that’s how they ended up in this line of work. A lot of them are mistreated and humiliated. Before, they were actually obligated by the national police to work as sex workers, as many were raped by policemen themselves. This has been decreasing slowly since the women’s rights movement in Ecuador has gained new traction.

Are there any specific laws in Ecuador that are there to protect LGBTQ+ women?

Unfortunately, last year the budget to help women and girls was eliminated. Now that we are approaching elections, and in April we will know the next president, we are hoping our new government provides this type of budget for women who need help. Also, there is no representative in the State or Assembly who has the power to help women. So, that’s really difficult when there’s no one in power willing or able to help women. 60% of Ecuadorian women were experiencing some form of domestic violence, and 90% of divorced Ecuadorian women were experiencing domestic violence before the pandemic.

Can you speak to the domestic violence situation before and after Covid-19?

Based on data from 2011, 70% of Ecuadorian women have lived through violence and 80% of women have experienced incest or domestic rape. During the pandemic, the hotline for Ecuadorian women to ask for help has risen by a lot. And there’s a very low percentage of Ecuadorian women who have actually been helped, which is a reflection of the lack of real policies we have to help women who have been raped or abused. Since 2014, there have been 850 cases of femicide. In 2020 alone, there were 118 cases of femicide. And in January to February of 2021, there have already been 20 cases of femicide that have been reported.

Wow. Can you explain what femicide is?

Femicide is when a man kills his spouse. This is due to the fact that normally the man has had a relationship with the woman — either a boyfriend, husband, or roommates — and many of the times the women want to escape the violent household. But unfortunately we live in a very chauvinist society, so it’s hard for a man to accept that a woman is leaving him. So he starts hurting her. And many of the cases lead to the man killing the woman. Many women have an economic dependence on men, because men have more opportunities than women. There is no public policy where jobs are created to help these women. So, for the women who are living through this type of violence, there’s no way for them to get out of it, so they end up fully depending on the men. There is also a naturalization of violence in Ecuador. So little girls see their fathers mistreating their mothers. Many of them have been raped by their own fathers, so some women grow up thinking this is normal.

What is CARE doing to prevent this cycle from continuing to happen?

We are doing a lot of workshops to prevent this type of gender-based violence. We are not only working with women, but we are also working with men because we think it’s important that they get involved. We also facilitate workshops targeting teenagers to help them understand what real love is. A lot of young Ecuadorians grow up thinking that being controlled by a man is true love. We are also helping to financially assist women. We help women with their rent or if the survivor wants to leave her violent household. We also work alongside lawyers, so we are able to make complaints against the aggressors.

The “love” workshops that you mentioned sound so interesting. I’m curious how you teach teenagers to view love differently than how they were perhaps raised?

We get help from other organizations and we invite teenagers to attend the workshops. There’s a lot of multi-day workshops, and we have lots of materials so the teenagers don’t get bored. Once they feel comfortable enough, they are able to express their feelings about what love means to them, and we can go from there. We also work on educating about sex and gender diversity, because many of these concepts can be misunderstood. We teach about different types of violence: psychological violence, symbolic violence, etc. We speak about the cycle of household violence that many of them may not even realize they’re living in. At all education levels, gender-based violence in Ecuador affects over half of women. But for women who aren’t educated, that number jumps to 70%.

How is CARE helping to ensure more girls and women receive an education?

We work alongside other humanitarian organizations and lawyers to identify which girls in a given province are not receiving an education, so we can help ensure every child can receive an education.

I know you have an upcoming presidential election. If you could sit with your new President, how would you want to advise him on ways to tackle gender inequity in Ecuador?

We aren’t able to speak with politicians, but if I had the chance, I would tell him it’s very crucial to create more job opportunities for women. That’s the only way they can leave their abusers. And to make a policy to ensure the sexual reproductive health of women is prioritized. There’s a lot of Ecuadorian women who do not have money to buy menstrual cups or tampons. The government could provide this freely. I think we also need to teach more girls about sexual reproductive health. There could be a stronger focus on indigenous women in Ecuador, many of whom don’t have access to education.

Great advice! I’m sure he would listen to you. What advice do you have for girls and young women in Ecuador and around the world?

I’d like to say to young women that it’s never too late to abandon your abuser. Never feel like you can’t get out of a bad situation. You’ll always have support. There are lots of NGOs in Ecuador that are working to fight against gender-based violence. There are also many women who feel guilty about being in this situation. I want to tell them that it’s not their fault that someone has raped them. We live in a chauvinist society where women keep being mistreated. But I want them to know that it’s not their fault and there is always someone who wants to help them. This is how I end all of my interviews: what’s the more to your story? I lived in an orphanage when I was young, and I was adopted by a very good family. But I firmly believe there should be a law that guarantees legal abortion for those who don’t want to be mothers. I have lived in an orphanage and I know there are many children who aren’t as lucky. When a child doesn’t get adopted and has no support system, it’s very hard. I’m now the mother of an 11-year-old boy. Every day, I’m learning more about the feminist struggle. And I’m here to support each and every woman who needs my help. I’m thankful for the support I’ve had and that I can help other women combat the same kind of violence I’ve experienced.

Thank you for sharing that. And thank you for lending your voice to More to Her Story!