I am sure that you’ve heard this question before:

Why don’t those people just help themselves? 

It irks me.

First, the person asking is usually in a place of privilege relative to those people. Second, the question itself discounts how the plight of the vulnerable is deeply intertwined with systems of oppression they did not create.

This first became apparent to me when I was studying abroad in South Africa.

In part, the HIV/AIDS epidemic there can be traced back to the social and economic systems created by the Dutch and British settlers.  Here is a broad brush overview.

Long before apartheid, native Africans were forced to move from their ancestral homelands to ‘Bantustands.’ These enclaves were on the least desirable (and mostly infertile) patches of land. It is somewhat analogous to Native American reservations and the history of how they were forced there. The ‘blacks’ of South Africa were then disenfranchised and levied with heavy taxes spawning a vicious system of migrant and domesticated labor. Most of the males went to work for gold and diamond mines because of discriminatory hiring and educational practices that limited the jobs they could hold. The owners of the mines refused to build housing that would accommodate their wives and children and instead opted for male-only barracks. A thriving prostitution industry came to encircle this mining encampment much like you see around military bases today. Many men were infected and spread the virus to their girlfriends and wives across the country and southern Africa.

And there you have some of the early contributing factors to an epidemic.

Do I want to negate the fact that these men made the decision to engage in transactional sex? No.

But I’ve found that oppression makes people vulnerable, and those vulnerabilities make people even more vulnerable.

The cycle of vulnerability applies to the women and girls working around the mining encampments. Most either a) come from an impoverished background and lacked schooling; b) have been the victims of sexual assault; or c) a combination of a and c. These factors make it more likely that they would end up as sex workers where they are exposed to violence, abuse and disease.

Below are two articles about the exploitation of boys and girls in South Asia. They typify my concerns about cycles of vulnerability.

As these articles show, the war in Afghanistan increased the number of widows and orphans, and male orphans are most likely to become prostituted as “dancing boys.” The young girl enslaved as a house servant comes from one of India’s poorest states. 1) Maid’s Cries Cast Light on Child Labor in India 2) Afghanistan sees rise in ‘dancing boys’ exploitation

This is this issue. When you have power you have choices. When you lack power you make decisions. Decisions and choices are two different things.  

Think about education. If your parents can afford it they can choose between sending you to a private school, boarding school, parochial school, or the best public school nearby. When your parents cannot afford these options they have to decide which school you’ll attend.

Study after study shows that students who attend the U.S’s most selective universities and have higher wages as adults come from wealthier families (See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/09/opinion/krugman-americas-unlevel-field.html?_r=1  and http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/us/harder-for-americans-to-rise-from-lower-rungs.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all).

What does this mean?

It means that, yes, those people have agency and should exercise it. BUT agency without access to opportunity yields limited results.  Or as a man I admire once said:

Don’t blame me for being lazy when I have to jump a 6 foot wall to make it to the other side, and you only jumped a 2 foot hedge.