Friday, January 16, 2004

The guilt of a Westerner.

This afternoon I had the luxury of watching an episode of Oprah. Usually I'm busy at school or with other things and I miss her show. Today I had enough time to sit down and watch an episode before dashing off to the gym.

It wasn't an easy show to watch.

No, she didn't have on any cheesy celebrities gushing about their extravagant life, or some expose of a social scandal.

Today's show was a special report on women's issues around the globe -- particularly in India and Ethiopia.

The first part of the show focused on Bride Burning in Bangalore, India. Every year around 1200 women are burned in these "kitchen accidents" -- which really are purposeful actions by the husband to burn his wife, usually over dowry issues. The clips showed faces of countless women, burned over 60-70% of their bodies -- all over issues of greed. One interview featured a woman and her 5 year old daughter, both burned alive when the husband/father poured kerosene over them while they were cooking.

It's beyond words what these women experience -- they'll never be accepted again in society, and will forever be labeled a "burden" to their families -- over something that wasn't even their fault.

Women don't usually talk freely about being burned by their husbands when their families can't pay dowries, because they fear being killed. Many women say they are burned because of a stove burst, but that is usually far from the truth. On any given day, at least three or four women are admitted to this hospital with more than half of their bodies burned. Lisa said the stench of their flesh was overwhelming and the sound of their pain was heartbreaking. "From the second I walked into this room, I felt like I was in a place where a war had struck," Lisa says. "The fact is that many of them will not live to leave the hospital, and this happens everyday."

The second half of the show detailed the life of one extrodinary woman, Dr. Catherine Hamlin. She is amazing, in every meaning of the term. She is such a selfless person, and she's given her life to helping the women of Ethiopia -- performing surgeries to fix fistulas and then enabling them to enter society once more.

From Oprah's website:

Fistulas are holes that develop in the tissue that separates the vagina from the bladder and/or rectum. They can occur in expectant mothers who have difficulty during labor due to small pelvises, or a poorly positioned fetus. In the United States, obstructive childbirth is often treated by a caesarian section. But in many developing countries, poverty prevents women from getting proper treatment.

Dr. Hamlin explains. "Imagine a little girl...one of the unfortunate five percent of all the women in the world that get into obstructive laborÂ…She doesn't know when she starts her labor, nor do the village women know... They encourage her (to push) day after day after day. After five days she delivers a stillborn baby. The only reason she can deliver is because the baby inside the mother gets smaller when it's dead, and she can push out a dead baby.

"But she wakes up to a worse horror: Finding her bed soaked in urine and sometimes bowel content as well. All of that pushing has created that holeÂ…so everything is coming out, without any control." The odor of the nearly constant drip of urine and waste remains. The young woman is often shunned by her husband, and sent to back home to her parents. Dr. Hamlin says the women are then shunned by their families.


Dr. Hamlin has spent almost 50 years of her career serving these women. In 1999 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but she didn't win. I think the prize that's in store for her is worth more than anything she could receive by a mere mortal organization.

But as I watched these stories about women a half a world away -- I couldn't help but feel guilty for all that I have. I want to do something, tangible, to help women who are persecuted in these ways. But what can I, a broke student, do to make a difference?

It's not enough for me to sit here outraged at what happens -- watching shows like this make me want to board a plane tomorrow to serve people less fortunate than myself.

One day, I will do something. I don't want to be the type of person that's moved the 60 minutes she watches a show and then goes on with her day like nothing's happened.

(also posted at grrrl meets world)

EDIT: Right after posting this, Dr. Phil's show came on. Somehow getting tips on how to haggle down prices on material goods isn't appealing to me. Watching a woman buy an $800 bracelet somehow made me feel sick at our level of materialism, compared to the rest of the world -- especially considering that amount of money would almost pay for 2 women to have their fistula problems fixed.

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