FSD Bolivia Alumnus 2016 Spotlight: Alexandra Mills
Alexandra interned in Cochabamba, Bolivia with el Instituto para el Dessarrollo Humano (IDH). IDH works with people living with HIV and AIDS in Cochabamba and the surrounding municipalities. They provide health services in addition to information about health, public health practices, and legal services. Additionally, IDH educates high school students about violence against women, gender-based violence, and sexual diversity.
Alexandra worked with the health and education teams at IDH to complete two projects. First, she completed a study in the social, cultural, and other external factors that influence treatment adherence and results in people living with HIV and AIDS. This study sought to understand why a subset of the population being treated at IDH experiences a deterioration of health despite having access to antiretroviral therapy. These factors include the presence of a support system, education level, socioeconomic status and general treatment adherence. Additionally, Alexandra worked on a resource guide of different contraceptive options for young women living in Cochabamba and the surrounding areas. This sought to give women options to seek reproductive autonomy in an environment that often is colored by the stigma of women's sexuality and that is rampant with misinformation.
I went to Bolivia and requested to work with IDH in large part to learn about women's health, gender-based violence, and gender inequality. For years, I have had a passion for and interest in how gender-based oppression acts as a system of violence to affect women's health, autonomy, and well-being. While in Bolivia, I thought that I would learn about Machismo, hear stories of how it affects women in the community of Cochabamba and surrounding cities in terms of health, reproductive rights, and economic autonomy, and understand different development strategies used to fight gender-based inequality and violence.
Working with IDH taught me so much about what is being done in terms of women’s rights education, breaking of gender stereotypes, and opposition to interpersonal violence. This, however, was not the most powerful or lasting part of the experience. Instead, what will stay with me for years to come are the people that I met at IDH and in Cochabamba. The interactions I had, in addition to conversations, are what will stay with me. My passion for women’s health and women’s equality was intensified by what I learned – but my spirit and drive to do development work on the ground utilizing resources of communities was given new life by the people that I met.
This includes Dr. Edgar Valdez, the
founder of IDH and a specialist in tropical and infectious disease. In a climate of immense stigmatization of HIV and the LGBT population in the late 80s, he committed his life to these marginalized populations. From there he built an organization that has expanded to encompass clinical health services, mental health counseling, legal rights workshops, and an expansive community for people living with HIV and AIDS in Bolivia. Furthermore, IDH has expanded to work within schools to break the stigma surrounding sexual and reproductive health, dismantle machista cultural practices, and teach students signs of violence in interpersonal relationships. Everything he does is infused with kindness, patience, and dedication to his employees and the partners with whom IDH works.
No one at IDH is a bystander in the issues of gender, health, sexuality or inequality in their country. In both their personal and professional lives they work to change the way the culture of their country operates. With an openness, strength and resilience that is impressive and humbling, the workers at IDH spread tolerance, information, and services to marginalized and at-risk populations in Cochabamba.
It was not only my coworkers at IDH that showed me how grassroots change is occurring in the city. My Spanish teacher became my window into Bolivia, a support system and a friend during my nine weeks in Cochabamba. With her, I was able to have candid conversations about feminist movements in the country, obstacles that women face, and learn how the younger generation of women is fighting machismo in their everyday lives. Furthermore, she allowed me to compare my interpretations of sexism, machismo, and inequality to hers and those of her daughters and her friends. Even though Toni was not working actively in development or public service, our daily conversations demonstrated to me clearly that she is not a bystander in the problem she sees in her country.
I learned so much about development, sustainability and community organization principles during my internship in Bolivia. However, it is the people who I met during my nine weeks in Cochabamba that gave me a spirit and dedication to work in development in my life. And on a smaller scale, it is the people I met that gave me the perspective with which to return to the United States and formulate my own path in public health and sustainable development going forward.
The Impact of an FSD Internship
My experience in Cochabamba this summer helped me discern which path I want to take in development and health and additionally helped me hone in on the specific issues that light a fire within me. Through working with IDH I became more assured that I am interested in health and violence towards women. I was also able to determine through interacting with both their health department and their education department, in addition to hearing of the experiences of other interns, that I am much more interested in the healthcare that people are receiving and how that differs along lines of inequality and marginalization.
My summer with FSD taught me how to survive in a foreign language speaking country and I was able to prove to myself that I could do it and would like to live abroad in my future. Additionally, I learned to be truly independent, a skill which is often not developed in our higher learning atmospheres in the United States. One of the most valuable lessons I learned with a reevaluation of priority and success. In the organizations, we worked with, as in much of Latin America, success is not evaluated by projects completed or in the numerical, hypercompetitive way that we often view achievement in the United States. Focus is more placed on family, community, and personal achievement. This is a value that I have attempted to incorporate into my life back at home.