Typically I talk about boobs, breastfeeding, babies, birth, children, parenting, and other related topics here. This post is going to be about more of the same, it just won’t look like it. To be really up front and fair: I have an agenda with this post.
In my comfortable first world lower middle class status I have to admit that I have experienced very little true oppression. I’ve had rough times and I’ve struggled but I don’t have a complete grasp on true suffering. That’s not to say I haven’t suffered, because I have, and as a mother I’ve experience great heart ache, specifically when 2 of my daughters were sexually assaulted by a close friend. So I know pain, grief, suffering, but I am really only familiar with it in the context of the first world setting where I live. Still, when going through difficult and dark times, the care of others, even people I didn’t know, made a difference. It is because of that support that I choose now to find ways to support others in difficult and dark times, even if they are half way around the world.
In the years that I’ve been active on the internet I have seen people create community, developing global communities where people find friendship, support, information, and the gift of knowing they are not alone. Babies whose mothers have died have received milk from other mothers. Families grieving the loss of a child have had funeral expenses covered. Friends that have never met face to face have journeyed to be with someone during a bitter relationship breakup. Auctions held to help families that have lost a parenting partner and cover medical expenses. When my own family went 2 weeks without power following hurricane Ike, my online relationships virtually supported me with tangible gifts of care. The global community found online extends support where, for some, there would be none.
I am confident that if my brother took my daughter from me and used her for his financial gain there would be national and international attention and online outpourings of support. I guarantee you, if my child was taken from me by a relative or friend and forced to work harvesting cocoa pods using a machete and having no access to schooling, there would be an organized effort not only locally but internationally by my online friends. If that community was aware that their favorite chocolate brands used cocoa they were aware could have been harvested by my child there would be letters of outrage, Facebook posts and tweets of fury, and massive calls for boycotts. Moving beyond promises, without proof of accountability to be sure their supply chain did not contain cocoa beans my child was forced to harvest, these companies would feel heat not only from the media but directly from their consumers to proactively fix the problem.
If it was my child I would not be able to stomach even the thought of eating chocolate that may be a product of their suffering. If it was your child, I doubt you could either. If it was our children we would want the world to take note, to stand with us, to fight for our children.
If these things happened we would not be able to stand it.
These things do happen. For us to have cheap chocolate, this woman’s son was taken from her.
And it happens for coffee, sugar, vanilla, cotton, and so much more. I’m struggling because even the very computer I’m using to write this is suspected of being made under unfair labor practices. Many products that are staples in the comfortable lives of people through out most of the world have passed through the hands of a working child in dangerous conditions, interfering with their education, and too often through slavery.
One child would be bad enough for public outrage. An estimated 284,000?* Are there even words?
About 10 years ago my husband and I became aware of the issue of human trafficking. We learned, to our shock, that many products we used daily were grown, harvested, and manufactured in dangerous settings by people treated poorly and compensated inadequately. Worse, some were in a form of slavery. Still worse, some of those were children. Children working as slaves without access to education and in dangerous environments were part of the manufacturing line creating products I thought I couldn’t live without. How we had been ignorant of this harsh reality was a combination of never asking and nobody ever talking about it. This knowledge would eventually change our lives, how we spend our money, and even how we celebrate holidays or interact with others. Because we were talking about people being abused, not simply a different standard of living, but the oppression of others. An oppression that we benefitted from. Once aware, turning a blind eye was not an option.
Today I serve as the director of a global initiative that brings artists together to speak up for the oppressed. I see over and over again the ongoing suffering of families ripped apart by the greed of others. The issue is complex, far more than I am prepared to go into here, but as a family, our personal choice is to not be a part of the chain that enslaves children. Please understand, I know that in some cultures, in some settings, child labor is a necessary part of the family’s survival. What I’m talking about here is child slavery and child labor that violates the standards of the International Labor Organization, child labor that is truly dangerous, forced, and interferes with access to education. The worst types of child labor. I’m not talking about a child working on their family’s farm when they get home from school. For us, we do with less so that what we enjoy or take for granted won’t cost a child so very much. We choose to spend our resources on products that at least make traceable, documented, and third party audited steps to not use child labor at any point along the way. It costs us more. A cost we would rather absorb than to place on a small child that should be safe with their mother, able to play, and attending school. It has taken time for us to make this shift and there has been an adjustment period. Financially we can only afford so much so we started with the big ones: coffee and chocolate. Shopping at thrift stores for our clothing and other textiles, we feel at least we aren’t buying brand new and can support local charities to some extent with our purchases. And we’ve accepted that less is ok. In our land of entitled overabundance, we don’t need as much as we think we do.
Could avoiding chocolate produced with unfair labor practices and enslaved children actually create more problems? Should we wait until there is a viable solution in place? I don’t think so. Without pressure that impacts their bottom line, there would be no reason for chocolate manufacturers to create change. Some of these companies have claimed they are taking steps to ensure their products do not involve the worst forms of child labor but refuse to comply to 3rd party audits and employ diversion techniques such as charitable giving in other areas or launch a fair trade line. But real progress in their supply chain is not evident. Chocolate that contains the sweat, lashings, and crushed spirit of a child slave simply does not taste as good. So we choose to buy fair trade. Fair trade isn’t without it’s issues and controversy and there is valid conversation about direct trade, and other verification options. Within an imperfect system we are trying to make the most responsible choice we can buy purchasing chocolate and coffee items that we can verify their labor practices or display one of these symbols:
Within the breastfeeding education and support community there is a strong push back against Nestle and other formula making companies that disregard the Code of Ethics for marketing artificial breastmilk as set out by the World Health Organization. There has been outrage from many regarding the underhanded marketing of formula in communities where extreme poverty, contaminated water sources, and lack of information highways result in vulnerable infants suffering without breastmilk, sometimes even leading to death. It is a despicable business practice. So is abusing humans, enslaving people, endangering children, and prohibiting children from receiving an education.
There are many causes in this life, issues of injustice and importance and none of us can pick up all of them as advocates. We don’t have to advocate for every cause though, sometimes it is enough to explore how we can respond on a personal level, changing ourselves. I told you at the beginning of this that I had an agenda with this post and I was serious. My goal in writing this is to challenge you, to make you uncomfortable, and to take the platform that I have here to raise my voice to speak up for the oppressed. My agenda was for you to hear it. What you do with it, how you respond, and if it makes any kind of impact on your choices is completely up to you but I will be able to enjoy my chocolate and coffee just a little bit more knowing I have tried. Not for you, not for me, not even for my children. I have tried for another mother’s child.
*International Institute of Tropical Agriculture about cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast
I appreciate Kristen Howerton over at Rage Against the Minivan for writing about this issue, sharing more information and links, challenging readers to be aware. The resources available are growing, I encourage you to explore this issue for yourself, watch videos, read reports, and connect with organizations aiming for fair trade practices.