Monkey Forest Tales: The challenges of being woman in a man dominated area

The study area is in a rural area dominated by man. Although I had known incredibly strong women in this area the reality for most of them is that they are still subjugated to men, meaning they are only value by how good they are to have children, maintain a clean house and a happy husband. Not very different from other rural areas in Colombia and in the world.

Supervising undergrad student has been one of the more challenging experiences, not only because teaching what I know in the field is not always easy, but also because the area in which I work is one with challenging situations, especially for young women that leave their house for the first time.

When a woman from the city arrives to this area, they are usually seen as an intruder for the local women, they came to steal their man. For men, they are some kind of trophy, a new prey to hunt. To them, there is no reason for a woman to study monkeys, and even less, a reason to spend long hours in the forest following monkeys. That is just illogic to them.

This make all those women who came to study monkeys in this area very special ones, strong women who faced a lot of their own fears to finish their careers. Even if they don’t know, all of them had teach me a lot about strength, love and passion and I’m very proud of had learned from them, and I hope I had taught them a little bit about monkeys in return.

I want to thank them for their friendship over the years and the lessons that they teach me. This project has not been sustainable if it wasn’t for them and all the observations they did.

Most of my undergrad students has been woman, but I don’t want to disregard the contributions that male students have done to this project and the challenges that they faced by coming to this area. In an area dominated by man, male competition is high and that also affected male students coming from the city who had different ways of see and experience life.

Another challenge of being a woman in this area is that you sometimes had to face some dangerous situations just because you are woman and you spent long hours alone in the forest.

In few occasions I had to face encounters with illegal hunters. Although nothing happened is a situation that sometimes can go wrong.

In Colombia hunting is allowed legally only for subsistence and only to indigenous and afro-descendants communities in traditional land. Therefore, as I work in private land and there isn’t any indigenous communities in the area, all hunting is considered as illegal in this area.

Additionally, meeting a man with a gun (or without it) in the forest more than an hour from the farm house can be scary and it requires a lot of internal strength to just continue working in the field. Some of these encounters had led to sexual harassment from these guys towards me.

So, How I handle this? I had a bad temper and is easy to know that I’m angry, so that helps a bit, because I didn’t show any fear towards them. And help me make some limits clear to the man in the area. But I also had carried for years a machete (long knife) in my waist, a very visible weapon that shows them I’m not afraid to defend myself. Finally, I just try to avoid any kind of encounters.

I always alert when I’m in the forest, not only because I’m searching for monkeys but because If I hear human voices, I just avoid them, specially if I felt uneasy. I follow my instincts.

I shouldn’t need to do all this, and it should be safe to be in the field alone or with people, but unfortunately not always is like that. So, we still need to change the way our culture see woman and teach man that we are not things that can be taken whenever they want.

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