Saturday, January 21, 2006

no matter how much I think about it, it's never enough

I've been writing back and forth for the last few days with a high school friend of mine who lives in Sao Paolo. After catching up, we were discussing his current job options: working for Greenpeace with climate issues, or teaching kids in Brazil about birth control. He has some really strong opinions about teenage pregnancy and having lots of kids, and even though I essentially think we agree we have somehow been having this really intense back-and-forth dialogue. I made a statement that went something like this: "I think that if a person knows about birth control and has a handle on the world situation and everything and still wants to have a lot of kids, they have that right." Okay, I do. I think it's a bad idea, but I feel like as a pro-choice person and also as a feminist I have to really acknowledge that having lots of kids is as much a personal individual choice as having an abortion.
I got his response when I checked my email at about 7 this morning. It was this extremely well-thought-out response to my statement, based on his personal experiences in Brazil. For instance, he has worked with kids there, around 13-17 I think, but he only gets to work with boys because ALL the girls have already left school because they've already had their first kids. There are states around where he lives that the average number of children per adult woman is 7. Sao Paolo itself grows by several hundred thousand people every year, mostly though immigration and births in poor areas. As he pointed out, it's no wonder people are forced to live in shanty towns, because what government could build enough new houses every year to hold such a large and mostly unemployed influx?
I hate it when I exhibit my own priviledge and cultural ignorance so blatently. As I wrote back to him, I do believe what I said, but I'm also speaking from the context of a middle-class american who is currently getting a second college degree from a really expensive university in something practically useless and extravagant. Although perhaps theoretically I know or could guess what he's telling me he experiences there, I guess I don't always remember to incorporate that into my views on things. I was remembering, during all of this, an article I read a few months ago in Northwestern's "radical" journal. It was about sweatshops, the usual list of statistics and a specific story about one specific worker, and then the writer said that the only true solution to sweatshops is the abolishment of the capitalist system. I thought at the time that while that's probably a valid theoretical viewpoint, it doesn't do jack shit for the people who are working in sweatshops right now. The practicality of this ideology is so far removed from where we are currently that, to me, it's rendered almost useless. I wondered at the time if thinking that meant I had politically grown or if I had abandoned ideology. Anyway, so here I am doing essentially the same thing! Yes, my statement perhaps holds at least a little ideological validity for a middle-class American (freedom of choice and all that, as I wrote to him), but my friend's statements seemed to me to be saying that having 3 children by the time you are my age is not really a choice for a poor woman in Sao Paolo. It sounds a lot more like that's just kind of what happens, for almost everybody that my friend meets anyway.
I don't really know where I'm going with this. Suffice to say, perhaps, that our dialogue has only told me once again that I am not yet able to think past my own surroundings without prompting.


ammie said...

Tangentially, does the fact that I think it's better to try and improve sweatshop conditions rather than take an ideological standpoint mean I'm not ready for or I'm not willing to make sacrifices for or I don't believe in revolution? Because I'm sure that social revolution isn't going to be easy or pleasant. I think I just think it's going to be slow, and that social revolution as a concept doesn't necessarily completely usurp the day-to-day reality of helping people live better lives. Besides, it seems wrong to force other people (sweatshop workers) to make the sacrifices for my ideology if I'm not the one taking the blows that come from the implementation of that ideology. Gah, this has turned into a politically angsty morning for me.

Tania said...

Now you've got me thinking about this too! I haven't reached any great conclusions but this is the way my thoughts are running:

Another question we might want to ask about these young women/girls in the third world having so many children starting so young is whether they aren't making a smart economic decision.

Of course we shouldn't underestimate the oppressive force of patriarchy and the way women are bound and limited by the role of full-time mother. But we can also ask: if these women stay in school, even if they go on and get an advanced education, will they have jobs available? Will they have any real chance at a professional life that will be fulfilling and let them earn more money, compared to raising children who can work and support them later on? And if they do that, will there be any way they can really work and have a family if they want both?

I know pretty much nothing about Brazil, so this is all hypothetical from me. But I do know that some studies of industrializing societies have found a strong inverse correlation between the earning power of individuals (particularly in the lower classes and particularly women) and the size of families -- which suggests that poor people having big families are often making rational economic decisions in doing so. (See for example: "Festival of the Poor" from UA Press)

So, where does that leave us? Obviously I'm 100% in favor of making birth control (both the means and education about them) available for women in the third world (as well as everywhere else). But if we try to go beyond that in any way to enforcing smaller families, is that really any better than if we were to forbid women to go to university? It seems like maybe either way, the consequence is to limit the personal and economic options open to women.

And to go from that into the generic pitch for socialism that you didn't like in that article you read: I think families will go on having lots of kids as long as they see an economic interest in it; that will be an indefinitely long time while imperialist capitalism continues to require a huge unskilled labor force living on third world wages; and the burden of that will rest disproportionately on women, who will be required to do all the caring for their families while also depressing wages and working conditions by constituting a reserve army of labor. It's worthwhile to fight to make birth control available for third world women, just like it's worthwhile supporting labor organizing in the third world. But the only way to solve their problems is a simultaneous and coordinated overthrow of capitalism and patriarchy.

(Also, I think we could interrogate the idea that no government could provide housing for so many more poor and unemployed people every year. Couldn't those people be working to build their own houses, along with other useful work? Why do they have to be unemployed at all?)

Anyway, those are my rambling thoughts. I hope this is useful and not just confusing the issue further!

Lauren E-C said...

" It's worthwhile to fight to make birth control available for third world women, just like it's worthwhile supporting labor organizing in the third world. But the only way to solve their problems is a simultaneous and coordinated overthrow of capitalism and patriarchy."

That's totally my answer to, like, everything. :) Of course, the question is, what are the smaller concrete steps we take to make that happen? Besides making birth control freely available to women, how do we help to change society so that their only choice isn't to have lots of babies to help support them?