I live in a wealthy community in a wealthy country. I had, and have, a stable, supportive family and access to world-class education. I am male and I am white.
Last week, as part of my time with the Acumen India Fellows, I spent some time 135km outside of Hyderabad, in the villages surrounding the town of Kosge. We were there to understand the issue of marginalization of rural women, and to do so we spent time in villages, with women’s self-help groups, visiting schools and talking with NGOs and the police force and with doctors in public hospitals.
We split up into four groups, and as luck would have it I ended up in the village that seemed completely stuck, where little progress was being made, and where it felt like there was little hope for improvement.
A village where every single woman said that she is beaten by her husband.
A village whose women, when asked what a woman should do if she is regularly being beaten by her husband, responded, “be patient.”
A village where payment of dowrys is on the rise, and where dowry deaths still occur.
A village where girls often get married when they are 12 or 13 years old, and where it is hard to figure out if that is as terrible as it seems or if, in fact, betrothal protects a young girl from sexual predators.
A village whose public hospital, 4km away, has exactly one young doctor, in her 20s, who is on call 24/7, and no additional nursing or medical staff we could identify, working in a hospital whose annual budget, according to the doctor, was less than $2,000 a year.
Returning home from this trip, on the way back from JFK airport, I was talking to my driver who was originally from Guyana. He described life in his country simply, “If you are born rich, you will die richer. If you are born poor, no matter how smart you are and how hard you work, there’s no chance for you, you will always be poor.”
Yes, it’s true, I have the choice, each and every day, of how to live my life, of how hard to work, of what opportunities to pursue, what risks to take, and what my attitude is going to be. I have agency and to some extent I reap what I sow.
But the fundamental point is that I live in a place and a time, and I was born in a place and a time, where my actions yield results. And for far too many people, including the women we spent hours sharing stories with, talking about hardships and often laughing through the discomfort of it all, every force in the world is undermining their ability to realize even some small fraction of their human potential.
It’s so easy to hide from the realities of the world, how cruel and unfair it still is for so many people. And while it is natural to insulate ourselves from these harsh, cruel, ugly realities, it strikes me that we cross a line – the line between self-preservation and delusion – when we start telling ourselves that we deserve the lives we have.
We have the lives that we have, we played some small part in creating them, and it is our choice, every day, to do what seems right to us with the gifts we have been given, however big or small.