As I approached her room I did not know what to expect. I had not seen her in months and all attempts to connect with her had proven futile. Her absence was noticeable and uncomfortable, making it seem as if she had vanished from the face of the Earth.
As a dear friend and ally, Selma supported me and countless others through tough times. She used her voice to promote justice and it was through this passion that we developed an indescribable bond, admittedly, to the confusion of many. We were different but similar. She grew up poor and disadvantaged, while I never lacked material wealth. I admired her for her strength, her unshakeable determination and her ambition. My family cared only about accumulating wealth and safeguarding our image, while they ignored the emotional turmoil which separated us from within. My unlikely friendship with Selma transcended the superficiality with which I was accustomed. It had always been extremely important to me.
Despite Selma’s poverty, she had the type of faith which provoked hope in others. She lacked basic things, but smiled unceasingly, asserting that “God will make a way where there seems to be no way.” This always reminded me of Karl Marx’s statement that religion was a drug for the people, used to keep individuals in a state of compliance and to perpetuate poverty, but I also wondered whether it was the poor’s sole lifeline, used as a tool of sanity and escapism.
My parents despised the word poverty and disregarded the poor. My father would exclaim, “Survival is for the fittest! If people worked hard enough, they would make it and if not, then they would simply die.” He was dealing with his own demons, like everyone else, but I had always found this cold. I knew, however, that his ideas about poverty were mainstream in many circles. He reflected the complacency of many people who kept a firm grip on their resources, no matter how much extra they had, shutting their ears and eyes to avoid being ‘bothered’ by the obvious suffering in the world. These memories flooded my mind as I was approaching Selma’s door.
When I entered the room, I was shocked. I could not believe that I was looking at the same woman who, only a few months prior, was active, was vocal about things which mattered to her, was pushing for self-development, and had loved living. She sat on her bed with a despondent look on her face and seemed disconnected from everything. The hope that was once reflected in her eyes was gone and she epitomised sadness, defeat and death.
I walked towards her. She tried to greet me with a smile but even smiling seemed painful. I could tell that she felt dejected by the way her voice shook. An old musky scent mingled with perfume permeated the air in her room. I was now seeing a broken, unfamiliar woman, who had isolated everyone and had gone silent. Her loved ones did not want to imagine what she was thinking or what her pain would cause her to do.
The room was disorganised, with clothes, books, paper strewn everywhere. There were handwritten notes on the bed as if she had been eulogising herself, hoping to clarify the facts of her life, before anyone had a chance to be misled. Unopened parcels and letters were stacked atop one another as if everything in her life had stood still, waiting for her to return.
I did not know how to embrace her. I wanted to show empathy, but I was afraid of being patronising. My thoughts scampered around my head, as I tried to figure out how I could listen to her without running out of the stifling room. I had to close my eyes and remember her for who she was. She was Selma; the friend I knew and loved and not some human-shaped problem. When I embraced her, it felt like an eternity. Our bodies and souls re-connected, hearts beating with a jubilation, mangled with pain, anxiety and fear. Tears poured from our eyes. Nothing else mattered in that moment. Time froze.
I still wanted to know what had broken this woman’s spirit. Why hadn’t I seen the signs? I was bewildered as I began to question myself, my purpose and service to others. It was then that she turned, looked me dead in the eyes and told me.
“I have nothing. I tried but I failed and to me, death is better than life. And poverty though it’s a curse with all of its harshness, is a queen when compared to social exclusion.”
Selma’s story, her challenges, missed development opportunities and herpresent situation may be a unique experience for her, but thousands of women can attest to the mental abuse, distress and psychological torture of being socially excluded.
“Social exclusion is a complex and multi-dimensional process. It involves the lack or denial of resources, rights, goods and services, and the inability to participate in the normal relationships and activities, available to the majority of people in a society, whether in economic, social, cultural or political arenas. It affects both the quality of life of individuals and the equity and cohesion of society as a whole.” - Levitas et al, (2007) The Multi-dimensional Analysis of Social Exclusion
While I was aware of the existence of poverty and was even sometimes guilty of stereotyping, I had never thought about social exclusion and the impact it could have on people. I never knew that it could lead someone to commit suicide or affect their mental health. I was ignorant of the fact that it could make people feel so alienated that they begin to exclude themselves socially, and I certainly was oblivious to the ability of social exclusion to cause people to lose their vigour for life. This diminished sense of purpose and connection can make death seem like a privileged opportunity to be equal. Selma reminded me that “death is the equaliser of all men for there are no social classes in the bowels of the grave”.
When society fails individuals and groups, to whom should those excluded turn? In speaking with Selma my eyes were opened to the deliberate, explicit, unintentional and implicit degrees of social exclusion. She reminded me of her hopes to become an accountant. She did not choose to be born to poor parents. It was not her fault that her family could not afford the tools for advancement. She tried believing in the human resilience and embraced the popular idea that people could achieve anything they put their minds to. All she had discovered was that it was nearly impossible to achieve anything without internal and or external support.
Unfortunately, very few people with the wherewithal and influence take the initiative to help marginalised groups. It is considerably difficult for marginalised groups to gain access to means of social advancement and even more so for women from ‘ghettoised communities’. Society often blames the children and people who live in disadvantaged communities for their own failures, with the global community failing to acknowledge the negative and life altering effects of poverty, social exclusion, the development gap, injustice, a lack of opportunities and the challenges which people from such families and powerless communities endure daily.
It is believed that many people who are born into disadvantaged families and communities are ‘Born to Fail’ Selma pointed me to the contents of the National Child Development longitudinal study which took place in Britain, where children from all social and economic classes were studied the findings showed that disadvantaged children were confronted with added sufferings in practically every aspect of their everyday lives.
Selma shared things with me that day which made me shudder. She spoke of being sexually violated by her uncle, and later in her life by her mother’s boss, as she sought an after-school job to raise funds for her schooling. The reality of many women who seek to advance is sexual harassment and exploitation. Life as a woman can be tough and some die fighting to break the glass ceiling to gain equality and respect. Many people prey on women in vulnerable situations, while others turn a blind eye.
Life was like a bitter pill for her and she said that it taught her a lesson very early. She was constantly reminded of her social class and was shown through actions that no matter how hard anyone with her background worked or how much they succeeded, they would never belong anywhere but in the lower class.
My parents had warned my siblings and I about contaminating ourselves. They would often say that certain people were “not of our class” I never understood that as I saw an interconnected, interdependent humanity. One does not have to grow up in poverty and deprivation to help those who do and I believe that helping is our civil duty.
As she continued speaking, I heard about the many times she sought help from agencies to no avail. She spoke of swallowing her pride and asking friends for assistance, but they either viewed her as a burden or had their own struggles. She even went to social services, where she saw the deserving poor being rejected and many under-deserving people manipulating the system and gaining support. She tried to start a business, but the financial bureaucracy frustrated her. She sought employment, but unsympathetic employers pressured her in diverse ways, from having her work extreme hours and miss classes to requesting sexual favours. The few credible ones had to let her go when the economy demanded it.
Her story introduced me to the real face of poverty and its propensity to cause social exclusion. Issues of access drastically limited the economic, social, cultural, educational, civic and political participation of poor people in the wider society. Poverty constantly undermines their quality of life, mental and physical health and is a self-perpetuating cycle.
Selma allowed me to see how society forgets those I now call the ‘the visibly invisible’ Societies must work towards reducing the gaps which hinder persons from embracing development opportunities and should strive to help people realise their goals.
While I accomplished a lot academically, I could not have done it without the help and support of my family, their resources and a strong community. I fear that my own bubble prevented me from realising that hurt and pain stare us all in the eyes at each turn. I cannot imagine what it is like to live in a family or community where there is little or no family, financial or community support and there is a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness and social exclusion which hinders progress.
Selma is back at university and is working to raise the standards of her community and educate persons about the negative impacts of social exclusion and poverty. Unfortunately, not everyone gets a second chance. The responsibility lies with those of us who have the means and influence to assist others, to lobby for policy and legislative change in our respective countries. We must use public education to encourage local, regional and international companies to assist deserving individuals. Helping one person could have a ripple effect on families, communities and nations long term. We can, through our actions, all work towards meeting the 2030 agenda for sustainable development: ‘No one is left behind’. As everyone deserves a fair chance at success.
Written by: Sherna Alexander Benjamin
Edited by: Shawnelle Martineaux