11 November 2010

Rent-a...body?

 The cover of the UK edition, which I like for its whimsical nature more than its American counterpart.

The other day, I was joking with Marcus (aka "the tall one") about the prospect of his "rent-a-tall-guy" job scheme, in which he would leverage his almost 6'-4" frame to reach the highest shelves or move things for average-to-short heighted people.  He then suggested that I have a similar "rent-a-small-person" side job, which seemed inane but... hey, I have been asked to crawl in small, tight spaces (mostly related to tunneling at Columbia...), so why didn't I just charge for those services?

Kidding aside, these conversations made me realize that, in some ways, these "rent -a-___" models are innocuous ways of renting out the capacity of your body to do something.  Here in normal law-abiding society (if you can even call it that), it means being a handyman or doing a simple service.  But what if it's unwilling rental?  And what if you're asked to do something you otherwise would never have dreamed you would be subjected to by another human being?

These questions had come up for me during what seems to be an innocent book report assignment.  For my D-Lab Schools class (aka the Cambodia class), I read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's new book entitled Half the Sky.  Based on the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist couple's extensive travels and reporting, HtS looks at the many inequalities experienced by women in developing countries and, through giving voice to the personal stories of women they've met along the way, proposing various ways to improve their livelihoods and - essentially - change the world as we know it, “emancipat[ing] women and fight[ing] global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts” (pg. xxii).

Lofty goal?  Perhaps so.  The NYTimes book reviewer also calls out the book's undisguised desire to “ 'recruit' the reader to join a worldwide movement to end these abuses."  This focus on women - also called "the girl effect" or "the double X solution" - reverses some societies' previously male-dominant biases by showcasing how education in particular for women can lead to delayed marriage, decreased child bearing, increased skills that can finance a family's further education, open up doors for employment and empowerment, and generally create financial independence.  Whew.

What was quite interesting to me was that these traits are all incredibly communal.  Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, is quoted by saying this oft-repeated African proverb, "You educate a boy, and you’re educating an individual. You educate a girl, and you’re educating an entire village." Now, what is it that supposedly makes women so much more familial and outreaching than men?  This fact upon which most of these claims and much of the book are based wasn't exactly addressed.  Is it because of inherent female traits like empathy?  Because of the act of childbearing, the very direct connections with children and family members?  I'm actually not sure (maybe someone else can shed some more light on this), but this begs the question, what if we asked the question, if we were all instilled with such a strong sense of community, would we all then have the capacity to serve one another and transform society equally, regardless of gender?

After reading the book, I was both heart-wrenched by the harrowing atrocities of sex trafficking, forced suicide, and intentional medical deprivation (among other abuses), but convinced that something could be done to change these current situations.  Another Kristof article showcases "DIY foreign aid" and social entrepreneurs who start off small but end up having a large impact on the communities they serve.  What is the motivation, though?  Humanitarian work could be another topic/blog post all together, but motivation is a tricky thing to pinpoint.  To be good and help others?  But in whose image are these people made?

I can't help but think about Acts 2 and the early Church's whole-hearted devotion to one another and to those overlooked in society (women, widows, orphans).  Is this not a portrait of a life-altering reality, recognizing that each other is a unique individual made in the image of the Creator Himself?

In any rate, the book is a good one and highly recommended, although it's not for the faint of heart - or faint of resolve to make a contribution outside of our own narrow perspectives.