Exploring gender roles in Pantanal, Brazil’s remote tropical wetlands
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to learn more about the way of life in the Pantanal, an area of rainforest in the state of Mato Grosso, a four hour flight from Rio de Janeiro.
We stayed in a remote pousada (lodge) — no neighbours as far as the eye could see, and yet, oddly connected. Turning into the drive, we were confronted by a large satellite dish and the host hastily pointing in the direction of the Wi-Fi password. Night and day, the flicker of the flat-screen TV could be seen in the living room. We laughed that in a retreat cut off from urban life, the TV was more high-tech than the one I have at home.
Physically, it didn’t feel as far away from urban life as we were expecting, but the more we learnt about the prevailing way of life, the more distant it seemed.
Professions in the Pantanal are limited and rigidly defined: men from wealthier families with access to better education become (sometimes bilingual) guides; men with fewer opportunities become drivers; and men brought up on farms become cowboys. Women marry early, often in their teens, and are expected to cook, clean and bear children.
As tourists, we sometimes found ourselves exposing these set roles without meaning to: one guest asked the male staff member who brought out dessert what it was. He waited, clueless and somewhat embarrassed, until a female voice from the kitchen provided him with the answer.
Similarly, some Belgian guests excitedly told of a rare monkey sighting they’d had that morning. The ladies in the kitchen overheard and pleaded to see the picture, having never seen any of the wildlife that had not been bold enough to come to the kitchen door for scraps. This was very different to Alex, our guide in Rio, who talked passionately about being the main cook in his household.
It’s been bothering me for a while: should we expect nothing less than stock gender roles in an area where physical strength is an asset to the main professions? Isn’t it logical that these should be male-dominated? And how is it possible to make a change somewhere so remote?
But then I remembered the flat screen, the satellite dish, the Wi-Fi: clear examples of a desire to be connected, to feel part of something bigger. And the media has an obvious responsibility here. Television has been touted by some as a dying medium, but it should not be forgotten that it still has the power to educate, offer up new values and connect the world. Maybe 90 per cent of females living in the Pantanal would still rather work in the kitchen, but if 10 per cent of them don’t, they should have options.
Brands have a responsibility to use these media connections for good by sowing the seeds for change, embracing positive societal shifts and rendering them accessible to the masses. At their best, democratic brand communications have the power to close the ever-widening gap between the urban and the rural. Moving forward is not about leaving people behind.
- Article by Emily Sheen