Safety and equality, equality and safety

Dear President Trump,

There’s a line in Melinda Gates’ new book, The Moment of Lift, which I keep coming back to (pg. 163):

“There is no equality without safety.”

There are hundreds of insightful, gasp-in-recognition lines in the book, lines that evoke reverential nods and copious underlining for their elegant statement of fact, but this one keeps resonating especially loudly and insistently.

“There is no equality without safety.”

“There is no equality without safety.”

I daresay you and yours know this instinctively. You and your male forebearers have labored long and hard to make sure there isn’t full safety for everyone, and particularly not for those who don’t look like you (white, male, straight, “Christian”, etc.). If the Equal Opportunity Fairy Godmother were to ever appear and wave her magic wand so that everyone suddenly had a reasonable measure of safety the bullshit myth of the individual meritocracy would be blown away. If suddenly we were all safe with and from one another, you all would have to face the reality that you’ve climbed the pyramid by terrorizing others. I know that’s strong language and it doesn’t apply to each and every one of you, but like it or not, you all have benefited from a system of oppression that has kept the most fortunate women and people of color jumping at sudden noises and unnerved at veiled slights and it has kept the most unfortunate among us trapped in exceedingly mean, cruel, and inhumane circumstances.

The line from the Gates book is from the chapter entitled ‘When A Girl Has No Voice’, which focuses on child marriage, a practice formally outlawed in most countries now but one that remains alive and unwell in many corners of the world. Young girls are routinely sold by their families or are given away along with a dowry to adult men they typically don’t know, often from other villages, and expected to assume the duties of domestic slave, including becoming pregnant as soon as possible. Rapes and beatings are every day occurrences for these girls. Here safety, or lack of safety, is at its most basic and primitive – is there anyone she can turn to? Can she survive that first or second or third pregnancy that is happening before her body is anywhere near ready for such ordeals? How many babies is she going to lose because she cannot feed them? Is there a rhythm to the beatings that she can predict and prepare for? Does she have time alone to cry?

And crucially, does anyone care that she is going through this?

Clearly Gates and the other people working to stop the cultural practice of child marriage care. Clearly those who are putting two and two together and seeing how this practice, and the practices that support it (e.g., genital cutting of girls, women’s lack of property rights, women’s lack of access to income, etc.), keep cultures stuck in poverty care. And from Gates’ account, it appears that the affected girls and women are learning to care too. As they come together to talk about their lives and to dream about what could be different for themselves and their children, they are daring to question their circumstances and the cultures that keep these cruel realities in place. And they are learning to care about themselves and to stand up for themselves in their families and communities. It’s dangerous, radical stuff, and it is so awesome.

In our part of the world we are no longer wrestling with child marriage, but we do still struggle with basic safety for women and girls.

Yesterday we had our inaugural meeting of the committee I am co-leading that has the goal of making recommendations to help bring more women into leadership positions at work. There are seven of us and we don’t all know each other. We are also spread out so we mostly have to use a Skype-like system to communicate, but it still it got intense and pretty emotional pretty fast when one of the women talked about how she can’t put in late nights at work to advance her career because it isn’t safe for her to walk to her car after hours. I was so certain she was going to say she couldn’t work long hours because she has a small child at home, which would have been a perfectly reasonable and legitimate thing for her to say, but when she invoked her very real, very basic safety concerns it felt like the air had been sucked out of the room.

And on this same day NPR and other outlets reported that a horrifying proportion (under-estimated to be 6.5%) of US women’s first sexual encounters are forced or coerced – in a word, they are rapes.

“There is no equality without safety.”

And to be clear, we cannot settle for the pseudo-safety of male (or white) protectors because that just keeps the whole shitty system churning.

May we all, all, all be safe with and from one another.
May we all be willing to make the cultural changes necessary to realize fundamental safety for all.
May we understand that the health of our society would be immeasurably strengthened if everyone had fundamental safety.
May we all make peace with the equality that will be realized when everyone is safe.

Tracy Simpson

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