BY: AMY VAN LANDINGHAM | MARCH 30, 2014
Occupying the bridge between Generations X and Millennial, I am privileged to be the benefactor of this trifecta of American middle class luxury. These luxuries provide me with quality problems, such as the frustration of reconciling my phone’s intermittent 4G data access with the desire to Google everything.
Passive reminiscence about the good ol’ 20th century has become as commonplace as idly discussing the weather to evade the awkwardness of interacting with a new human. Remember those days, when we suffered cacophonous dial-up modems to get one-one thousandth of the bandwidth we have today? Or when the Federal definition of rape was still, “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” – allowing men like Jerry Sandusky to evade conviction for their crimes? My mother’s generation fought against the oppressive glass ceiling and has successfully closed the gap over time. Our glass ceiling is higher than ever, but it feels so far away that, as a group, we’re just not pushing that hard.
“The decisive point is that this attitude – which dissolves all actions into a sequence of semi-spontaneous reactions to prescribed mechanical norms – is not only perfectly rational but also perfectly reasonable…There is no personal escape from the apparatus which has mechanized and standardized the world.” – Herbert Marcuse, Some Social Implications of Modern Technology
It is a no-brainer that life in Nepal, one of the poorest and most politically unstable countries on Earth , is a far cry from what we experience in our technologically rationalized society. In a time in which edX, Coursera, and Udacity are freely giving away Ivy League knowledge to any Joe-Schmoe with internet access, it is difficult to fathom not being able to access a condom to have safe sex. This is a legitimate hardship for many in Nepal.
In a 2010 study published by the Global Journal of Health Science, a focus group of Nepalese young men shared that, “we have one health post there and it’s too far. Doctors who work here know almost everybody. We know we can get condoms there but we don’t go because we know the service providers very well…mostly, they are out of stock.” They are afraid that in even trying to access condoms, they will violate the taboo against acknowledgement of premarital sex when their families learn of their actions by local healthcare providers. Poor access to condoms, the stigma against pre-marital sex, and a biological imperative leads to the obvious conclusions.
The young women of Nepal tell a different story. According to the same study, young women report fewer opportunities for education and employment than males, and less access to health care. In fact, the literacy rate for women is just 42.5%. Nepal is also home to an epidemic of violence against women, 80% of which occurs at home. Violence against women is justified over disputes of dowries, second marriages by husbands, and accusations of being a witch, among others. Much of the violence goes unreported by police. Instead of taking a report of the incident, women are coerced into accepting the violence as their fate.
But, sadly, some of them do become prostitutes.
Much of Nepal lives in poverty, and many women with poor resources find they must turn to prostitution to generate an income. For some, it is a cultural imperative to become a sex worker. Their parents encourage them to get into the trade well before their first menstrual cycle, so the family can rely on their work for subsistence. There is little else for many to do to survive. While knowledge of condoms is pervasive, they are rarely used because clients refuse to wear them, and most sex workers cannot afford to refuse a paying client. The risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS is immense for sex workers who cannot afford to use condoms. Worse yet, those who become addicted to heroin also are at increased risk for exposure. As many fall victim to the tragic effects of HIV/AIDS, and poor access to health care persists, a forced resignation to accept their fate is the only coping skill available.
"I know the danger of having sex without condoms. My husband is a HIV-positive... How can a wife ask her husband to use a condom? It is better to die than resist a husband... And how can I tell this (his HIV status) to my clients? I am helpless... As everyone has to die one day, and no one is immortal, I do not press my clients to use condoms." -Nepalese sex worker, age 28.
Marcuse’s “apparatus” finds a metaphorical link to the process by which Nepalese women find themselves entering the sex trade. The apparatus, whether symbolic of privilege or disprivilege, becomes our operating system, the knowledge schematic we utilize daily to make decisions and judgments. One that aids us in “adapting all means to the end…[and in] sustaining calculability and security. ” Sex workers who resign themselves to not using condoms have their schema (“Everyone has to die one day”), and our resignation to eat at McDonald’s has its own (“I’m too pressed for time to go elsewhere”). But unless we are aware of the controlling influences of our operating system, it can be next to impossible to evaluate and dismantle it.
Before you retreat from the harsh reality of these facts into some mindless safe haven, please consider the resounding importance of this self-knowledge. American feminist Peggy McIntosh calls upon white Americans to identify their racial privilege as an exercise in traversing the experiential reality of the oppressed. In her famous 1989 essay, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh illustrates her white privilege as analogous to male privilege, neither of which has any incentive to relinquish their respective advantages. It seems that the only incentive, then, would be opening our hearts to feeling empathy for those not enjoying our liberties. To take it a step further, men, white Americans, the wealthy, or any dominant group in our society can, in a global context, be generally understood as citizens of the First World relative to Third World societies.
When we as First World-ers articulate our own discomforts, we can begin to connect with the suffering of those less fortunate. In the words of Audre Lorde, “I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices” (1984). Understanding the nature of suffering and our reservations against dismantling our privilege allows us to see the political implications of our personal actions. When we begin to articulate the inequality perpetuated by our privilege, only then can we take apart our operating system in favor of humanity and create global change.
Meanwhile, in Nepal
The undulating waves of Western feminism have fallen short of the Bay of Bengal, where 443 miles north-northwest, Nepalese society stands as a monument of disregard for women’s rights. The painful irony of oppression for these women is that their systematic oppression sustains an inability to express the larger implications of their situation. Non-Western feminists criticize Western feminists for their false presumption that belonging to an oppressed group gives one epistemic privilege--that is, the benefit of having double insight into the operating systems of both the dominant and the oppressed group.
Young Nepalese women are certainly cognizant of the sexist double standards of their society, and the effects of their systematic oppression. It would seem, though, that while it is the luxury of educated feminists to entertain the notion of epistemic privilege, it is the plight of oppressed women to endure the painful, and sometimes lethal, deficit of knowledge, opportunity, and access.
“We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” – Slavoj Zizek
Academia has yet to produce adequate research documenting the severity of drug abuse among Nepalese sex workers, but it takes less than 10 minutes of internet research to learn that anyone in Kathmandu can buy kilos of heroin in a commensurate amount of time. Addiction is insidious, and in a society in which discussion of sex is still taboo despite the prevalence of prostitution and marital rape, heroin addiction is a problem that gets more attention from the War on Drugs regime than governmental aid. In 2006, my close friend Lee FitzGerald and a young Nepalese woman named Parina Subba opened a women’s recovery center, Dristi Nepal, serving women seeking freedom from prostitution, heroin addiction, and health care for HIV/AIDS. For the first time, women have a place in Kathmandu dedicated to providing information about reproductive health and a clinic in which to see a doctor. Here, women can attend 12-step meetings and find support from other women who struggle against lapsing back into the default operating system of the oppressed.
Change in the conditions of women is a series of thousand mile journeys, but successes such as Dristi Nepal are clear examples that global unity for women’s right to recovery can occur one small step at a time.
Amy Van Landingham is a UCLA Alumna, where she attained her BA in Sociology and Gender Studies. She currently serves as the Vice President on the Board of Directors of Dristi Nepal, a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit serving the women of Kathmandu.
You may also support their Indiegogo campaign for their fundraising gala in May 2013 at http://igg.me/at/DristiNepal/x/6363827. The goal of the fundraiser is to acquire a property in Kathmandu and establish a more permanent residential treatment center for women seeking recovery.
To learn more about Dristi Nepal and how you can help the cause, you may contact Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their website at www.dristinepal.com.