(This article originally posted elsewhere in December 2012. I still believe it is true, so here it is again.)
When I was 15 and finishing high school, I applied for a number of scholarships to cover the many years of tuition which lay ahead. One of those scholarships was a full-ride ticket offered by Anglo-American, arguably the most prestigious scholarship available at the time to school-leavers in South Africa.
For the interview, I had to travel to their shiny skyscraper HQ in Johannesberg, and I well remember feeling intimidated and exhilarated as I stared up at the giant glass building. The interviewers asked me about myself, my background, why I wanted to study law. “I want to help women and children,” I said, “I’m interested in justice for women and children who would otherwise not have a voice.”
The chief interviewer smirked as I answered a few more questions, and finally said goodbye. I remember her words as I left: “It was good to meet you and we wish you all the best at university, even if your ideas are a little naive.” Coming from a shiny-successful person in a shiny-successful building, her words stung, and I remember feeling a little ashamed of my gung-ho “I’m going to save the world” declarations.
I did not get the scholarship, but I did go to law school, and on more than one occasion I remembered her words. It was true that the ivory-tower ideals of law school often met with the much more gritty reality of what actually happened in court. I realized I was studying about the LEGAL system, not the JUSTICE system. What I learned seemed to confirm my cynical interviewers words: the desire to really do good and oppose injustice is fanciful, naive, immature.
Well, life took me – or should I say God took me – in different directions. First vocational ministry, which I would NEVER have guessed I would land up in. And now, full-time suburban motherhood, which remains a very unexpected outcome in my opinion. I definitely saw myself in the shiny-successful role in the shiny-successful building, rather than behind a sink and using my Mommy voice to explain (again) why my preschooler should not bash his fork into the dining table. But here I am, in full time Mommy zone – a million miles away from law school and career ambitions and the person I thought I would become.
A friend sent me Kristof and WuDunn’s book “Half the Sky” and asked my opinion on it. I read it in stolen moments over several weeks, and as the pages turned, so too the wheels in my heart and mind turned. There is still much for me to process in the aftermath of the book, but here’s the beginning of it.
Millions and millions of women in our world are subjected daily to cruel treatment, medical failure, abuse and exploitation. Little girls are sold into sex slavery, girls have their genitals slashed, women die needlessly in childbirth. Women and girls starve to death, because they are considered less important to feed than boys and men. The suffering is deep and widespread. And the impact of undernourished, undervalued, impoverished and uneducated women is borne by community after community, generation after generation.
Reading such things is gut-wrenching and eye-opening. My first impulse is to weep. My second impulse is to shake my head, feeling helpless and unable to do anything. After all, haven’t I carried a thought in my head for some twenty years which scolds me “it is naive and foolish to think you can do anything for women and children. The shiny-successful lady told you so.”
But the message of this book is not just to alert readers like me (and you!) to what is going on in the world. It is primarily a book to galvanize action: small and purposeful changes CAN and DO make a difference. One extra year of education for a girl dramatically changes the statistical trajectory for her life. One extra year of school for one girl means she is far more likely to marry later, to bear less children, to suffer less physical harm from youthful childbearing. It increases the wage she is likely to earn, and thus her access to health care. One extra year makes it more likely that, as a more numerate and literate person, she can contribute to her family, her community, her country in the years to come.
And friends, I can help with one year of education for a girl.
I can help with deworming kids.
I can help support legislative efforts to police sex trafficking effectively.
I can help, by prayer, aware-ness raising, and purposeful contribution.
I am not impotent in the face of injustice. I am willing – I have always been. But now, after twenty years of believing a lie, I am also willing to say I am able.
Here are three ways our little suburban family tried to make a difference:
1) We prayed about injustice, with hope and specificity. I have lacked faith to pray about matters so big. But I can pray.
2) We decided to give some Christmas gifts which would “keep on giving”. To my sisters, I gave a donation to Food for the Hungry to educate a girl for a year. To my vegetable-growing mother in law, we gave a donation of vegetable seeds to a poor community in South America. etc.
3) We have decided to switch to buying fair-trade only coffee. For a long time I have put all the buzz words of our day (organic, free range, fair trade, nitrate free, sustainably developed etc) in the same category. Organic was the only category I had given a little thought to – and I figured that the risk was ours: we could choose to brave the pesticides and wash our fruit and veggies, or not. No harm to anyone else – our risk alone.
But now I realize that they are not the same. The risk is OURS if we buy non-organic products. But to but non-fair trade products means the risk was someone else’s. Learning about our slavery footprint was eye-opening. A package of coffee which is not marked as being fair trade could perhaps have a stamp on it which says “hand-picked for your enjoyment by oppressed people worldwide.” So I will buy fair trade coffee.
There’s more to be done, even in our own home. I read an article just before Christmas which has given me much more to think and ponder. But for now – this is where we start.
Shiny-successful lady, you were wrong.
It is not naive to want to help women and children. It’s human. It’s necessary. It’s what we must do. I serve the God who cares about the poor, the fatherless, the widow. He came to set the captives free. I dare not think that, as one of His children and one of His disciples, doing nothing is an option.
This is an exciting year. I can feel it already. I’m taking my 15-year-old self out for a treat to see how little-me can make a big-difference to little-you out there.