Tonight, I attended a community conversation held by the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society, WMHT, and Holding Our Own. The topic was multifaceted and centered around human rights violations that by the nature of biology and culture are mainly perpetrated against women around the world. If you haven’t seen the PBS documentary Half the Sky, or better yet, read the book, I recommend that you do. But keep a box of tissues nearby and know your limits, because this is truly heart wrenching stuff.
Some of the topics are the obvious ones when you talk about human rights and women – violence against women, including domestic violence and sexual assault, but also included under that heading is human trafficking and the commercial sex trade. Another tragedy exposed that you may not expect was that of maternal mortality, something that I, in my cozy one-bedroom apartment, living a mostly middle-class student lifestyle, have never paid any mind to before this exposure. For those of you who aren’t aware of this topic, maternal mortality is a term that refers to the death of a mother during or following childbirth, which can be caused by any number of complications – nearly all of which are preventable, but in developing countries there is either a lack of access to medical care and/or equipment or a lack of funding for these procedures. In the case of a lack of funding, it is not uncommon for providers of medical care to withhold treatment and allow the woman to die. This becomes even more sickening when you remember that many women find themselves facing these situations as the result of rape, many are children or little more than children. Economic development and financial security is a topic in and of itself, but also highlights the interrelated nature of these various tragedies. It was brought up during the community conversation that not only is it a tragedy for the women who are victims of these atrocities, but many of the people who perpetrate the violence are victims as well. It is very easy to think of the people who run the brothels or sell their daughters to traffickers as evil, it’s much harder to see their actions as desperation in a context of cultural and religious norms, poverty and victimization of global proportions as well as local struggles.
I’m new. I feel like I have to excuse myself for my ignorance, and believe me I have plenty of it. But I also have drive and the insight of self-reflection. Every time I interact with these topics, and indeed with any social activism, I feel a tremendous amount of emotion and discomfort. I call it, “growing pains”. The benefit of that is the eventual light bulb of one more piece of the puzzle becoming clear. One of the things that really stood out for me about this evening was the fact that the film was about human rights violations in developing countries (and the movements to fight back). The heart-breaking stories of girls and women on the other side of the world with pain and strength on their “yellow, brown, and black faces” (to quote one of the panel speakers. I’m not sure if as a white woman it’s alright for me to use the same terminology, but I found it really poignant. Please feel free to call me out if I’ve committed a faux pas). What was conspicuously missing was the threat to white people and also the serious problems we (people of all races and ethnic backgrounds) face here in the States. Take for example human trafficking. My home state of New York has a significant human trafficking problem, we are one of the central hubs for trafficked persons to enter the country. But it’s not just persons from outside of the country, there are plenty of trafficked persons who are Americans. We can talk about this as an atrocity that happens to people of color in poor and developing countries in remote parts of the world and can easily talk about how awful it is for them. Speaking as a white woman, who is often blindsided by my privileged experiences, I have fallen into this trap of (wrongfully) thinking about these women as “the other.” It’s much harder to sustain the emotions of these conversations when you have to admit that it happens in your backyard (because the nature of the emotional experience changes).
If you’re anything like me, it might be hard for you to even put this together in your brain. Sure, we can read the figures and the words and we can on some surface level comprehend what we’re talking about, but there’s something more visceral about really connecting to this information. A combination of the biology of thought and the strength of socialization make it easy for me to categorize, to other-ize, and to throw up mental and emotional defenses to make me feel safer… because it’s really not fun to feel torn up inside and to face this harsh reality. On top of which, there are layers of faulty thinking (cultural stereotyping) that inform the way I respond to information and it’s a process to identify these blocks and barriers and rework my relationship to the information, the situation, and the people. I have found that falling back on good intentions, on empathy, and on upholding respect and admiration for people is the only thing that I have to hold on to when I’m swimming in frustrating and confusing emotions.
My point is that it’s hard. It’s sometimes especially hard for people who have been sheltered, or privileged in various ways, to muck through the complexity of re-writing our thought processes in the face of ingrained biases (that we wish we didn’t have and are sometimes even unaware of). I’m baring my soul here and revealing something I’m particularly embarrassed about, but I don’t think I’m special so I don’t think I’m the only one who has struggled this way. I do, however, feel touched in such a way that I cannot have been informed of the hard truth of the suffering of others, of the injustice that exists, and not be changed. I must do something. I expressed this sentiment as my contribution to the conversation – that I must do something. And someone said to me that it’s documentaries like this that make us feel that we have to do something grand in order to make a difference, but in many ways our every day life choices are impacting a global economy that can either work against or perpetuate these very injustices. Maybe that is that scariest part of all of this because, for me, that means that it’s just as important for me to change my lifestyle as it is for me to volunteer my time and money.
What I’d like to leave you with is this… Regardless of whether you feel ignorant, frustrated, uninformed, or all-together useless (as I often do), you can still engage with conversations about feminism, community activism, and human rights. I think it’s important to expose ourselves to some of the harsher truths of the world, whether your response to that is to get involved, to be aware, or to just feel thankful for the life you have.
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