Injustice in my backyard

Documentaries.  Normally, a powerful form of media to pull me into another worldview effectively and quickly.  In search for a different point of view this weekend, I watched Very Young Girls.  This is a striking documentary that chronicles the tails of a few young girls who entered into prostitution, or as they termed it “the life.”  Now I realize I’m not a very normal person when my “roommate night” includes watching a tragic documentary over a bowl of popcorn.  And I’m stilled by this thought.  The closest I may ever come to knowing anything about their lives is by watching them speak out on film.  I immediately felt spoiled and ungrateful at the same time as I heard them talk about their days.  Beaten. Abused.  Wanting love.  Not finding it.  Thinking they found it in their pimps.  Nope – not finding it.  It was an endless cycle of hopelessness which started and nearly ended with hopelessness.  Thankfully, that was not the end of some of their stories.  I’ll let you watch the documentary yourself to find out how one woman is changing a lot of prostitutes lives for the best.

Very Young Girls notes that the average age of a girl entering into prostitution is only 13 years old.  Tragic.  Truly tragic.  I nearly wept as I thought about these girls as daughters.  More excruciating, perhaps, was imagining them for what they are – children.  I found the image below which reminded me of the documentary.  It’s a disturbing image, but isn’t that the point?  Shouldn’t we be disturbed?  I think so often in my comfortable American life I forget about the injustices occurring in my own backyard.

Sure – people in Cambodia, Thailand, Rwanda, and other third world countries are suffering, so I buy my Toms shoes and send some of my resources to help with micro-financing upstarting businesses in third world countries to create stable, self-supporting economies.  All the while I’m sipping on my Starbucks latte and engaging in philosophical discussions about higher education and what it means to be impoverished (which of course, is to not be educated or free I’ve decided since clearly I’m the definition of not being impoverished).  When I say “I,” I fully mean me.  Impoverished?  I don’t know if I really know the meaning of the word.  Not like these girls know it.  In French, there are two forms of “to know”: one refers to knowing that (savoir; e.g., I know that George Washington was the first president of the United States) and knowing well or intimately (connaitre; e.g., I know my friend or the city of Waco).  I only know about impoverishment in the savoir way.  These girls know it in the connaitre way.

But back to my point.  I think we focus so much on third world countries partially because they are so impoverished but mostly because we can keep the reality of impoverishment existing all around us at arm’s length.  If injustice is taking place in my own backyard, don’t I begin to feel more responsible for it?

The interesting thing is that many of these girls have a striking grip on what matters in life, even if they have lost their way in some aspect.  For instance, one girl in discussing her education (which she presumably stopped around age 13 or 14 when she began prostituting herself) argued that she didn’t want to get a GED but that she wanted to go to classes.  Her emphatic need to be educated rather than just get the piece of paper she needed to get the job she wanted or meet some end goal astounded me.  How many times have I and many like me complained about school?  We wish for it to be over with so that we can get our B.A. or our M.A. or Ph.D. or whatever the degree may be so that we can move on to the next step in life.  This girl just wanted to learn.  I’m struck by that difference.  In some ways, because she knew the lack of education, perhaps she wanted more.

As an educator myself, I longed to provide these girls with what they sought – education, freedom, a shot at life.  Hearing them talk about all of their dead dreams moved me.  One girl expressed extreme frustration that one of her relatives was in school getting a law degree and she was just making it out of prostitution.  But what an accomplishment that was!  And what a journey she was on.  I want these girls to know that just because someone used them does not render them useless.  Instead, those dreams can be realized with proper training.  It is as I heard the other day becoming more clear to me that being educated without the ability to express one’s ideas is useless.  If I have all of these ideas and knowledge in my head but no ability to execute them into real change in society, what good is it?  So I sit, back to my point in my prior post.  I can only change society by changing it life on life.  And so that is what I hope to do.

About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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