A friend recently asked me if I think I am lucky in life. If I consider myself fortunate. I am still contemplating my answer, but I had an immediate response about my childhood. I told him that as a girl, I was definitely one of the lucky ones.
My fortune lay in the fact that I was told throughout my childhood that I could accomplish anything I set my mind on. I was told to dream big and that the sky was the limit; I was supported and encouraged and cheered on and gently nudged towards developing, articulating and pursuing dreams. I have lost that faith at a few points along the way, but I was raised to believe in myself and in the power of possibility. Lots has been written about helicopter parenting, overprotectiveness and the dangers of projecting parental ambition and expectations on children. And yes, I have suffered from some of that. But I was also deeply fortunate in knowing I was loved and safe and in being raised to believe that I could make my mark on the world.
Meanwhile, in other childhoods…: “Out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls.” One girl in 7 in developing countries marries before the age of 18. According to the International Center for Research on Women, “a survey in India found that girls who married before age 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later.” Medical complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide. [all statistics courtesy of the Girl Effect]
When I was 13, I was not thinking about marriage as an imminent and realistic possibility in my life. At 15, my life was not threatened by pregnancy. I was schooled — too schooled, according to some. I was one of the fortunate girls.
As a gender-related development specialist in conflict and post-conflict zones, and as a storyteller, I have often had to think about how we tell the stories of the less fortunate. “Less fortunate” — is that the right term? There is a type of awareness-raising imagery and messaging that the aid community has coined ‘poverty pornography’. The Global Poverty Project writes:
For years, it has been commonplace for poverty-driven NGOs to utilise images of malnourished children as well as desolate and despondent people in their campaigns to raise awareness and funding. This technique, known in development circles as “poverty pornography”, communicates a hopeless situation of disrepair. These images suggest that those who live below subsistence lead a pitiful and wretched existence. Yet while there are countless stories of heartbreak and defeat amongst the extreme poor, does this one-sided appeal to our sympathies properly reflect the whole story of those suffering?
How do we preserve the dignity of women and girls while also doing justice to their needs, plights and the challenges they have faced? How do we not rob women and girls of their agency? How do we not further enhance their victimization? Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters has helped me navigate my way to some of the answers. She cites research by Rachel Naomi Remen, who distinguishes between the terms and concepts of helping, fixing and serving. Remen identifies the following qualities with serving:
- Perceiving person as “whole”, which I see and trust
- Mutuality. We can only service that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch.
- Experience of mystery, surrender and awe (as opposed to experience of mastery and expertise, or of strength)
- Basis of healing, not of curing.
To some, these distinctions may seem like semantics and may, thus, appear irrelevant in the scheme of the global effort to strengthen/empower/your-word-of-choice women and girls. To others, it may seem paralyzing: If we are going to walk into a minefield when our intentions are good and we are trying to raise awareness for a ‘good cause’, why speak up at all?
To me, it is a call to experience the mystery, surrender and awe that Remen identifies in others’ life stories. I have fallen into stereotypes when narrating my work with women and girls, and I have misspoken and mischaracterized and unintentionally victimized as well. But I will continue to speak up because I believe in the importance of these stories. In speaking up, I will seek to remain mindful of whose story I am telling, of the circumstances that breathed that life story into being, and of the power, magic and consequences of storytelling.
Roxanne Krystalli is a regular contributor to Gypsy Girls Guide.