Sunday, May 15, 2011

But who decides what's best?

When considering the best options for children, we considerwhere they will be well cared for, where they will have somewhere safe andhealthy to live, where they will be able to go to school, and where they willbe surrounded by people who have their best interests at heart.
I imagine that if I were to ask ten people where, or withwhom, children should live, the overwhelming answer would be with theirparents. Studies suggest (citation to come later if I can find it) thatchildren suffer emotional trauma when separated from their parents, confirmingthe sentiment that children should stay with them. However, living with parentsis not always the best place for all children, sometimes parents are willing tocare for children, but unable due to limited resources or outside stressorssuch as war, natural disasters, or the death of one or both of the parents. Onthe other hand, sometimes parents are able to care for children, but unwilling;they may demonstrate their unwillingness by treating them poorly or harshly, orsimply neglecting them.

But, generally speaking, as long as parents do not fall intothe “unwilling” category, we imagine that children (here we mean anyone under18) fare better with their parents than when they live on their own, especiallyin an urban setting. But I was interested to hear differently from the researchteam during our end of project debriefing yesterday. We went through all thedifferent “sub-groups” of children we had identified, who were divided by thetype of job they did, the amount of time spent in Jakarta, age, gender, and bywhether they lived with their parents, among other things. Researchers reportedthat children in highly vulnerable sub-groups of children, such as those livingin temporary shelters, working on the street, and engaging in drug and alcoholuse, criminal activities, and transactional sex and sex work, did not appear tobe more or less likely to live with their parents than children whose lifestylepresents less vulnerability to harm. I can’t confirm this from our researchyet, as the data analysis hasn’t been completed, but the researchers had thestrong impression that many children moved to Jakarta with their parents, whothen pushed them to earn money, and weren’t particularly concerned about whereit came from. In some cases parents even pushed children into high-risk workbecause there is sometimes opportunity to earn more in such activities.

This might not seem so surprising to some people, there havealways been parents who valued the financial survival of the family as a wholeover the emotional, mental, and physical well being of one child. But thedominant paradigm of much of child protection often rests upon the fact thatfamily support helps children do well; and while this may be the case in mostcircumstances, it is essential for organizations (and governments) engaging inprogramming with this population to remember that keeping (or reuniting)children with their parents may not be in their best interest, and in fact,just because a child is doing something dangerous for money doesn’t necessarilymean the child lacks parental guidance, but that the parent’s interests are notwhat is best for the child.

I'm home from Indonesia now, and will be here for about two weeks before I head back to Indonesia again, coincidentally, for my next project, so look for more posts soon! 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

You're Uninvited

As the bajaj (tuk tuk or moto rickshaw in other places) dropped us off, we thought we knew where were. "We'll walk from here" we confidently asserted, wary of entering a closed community in such a loud and noticeable way. But then we weren't where we imagined, but in a busy community, tucked in between a cemetery and a highway. The four of us, myself and three Indonesians, were followed by two young girls as we walked down the street, obviously disturbing the usual equilibrium present. We asked for directions and were told we were very far, very very far, but after another ten minutes walking, I recognized a local store and we stopped. We had a quick chat and I suggested everyone approach anyone they saw who looked young and try to start a chat.

We were in an area that we had previously identified as the home of young children involved in sex work, or where the people who were commercially sexually exploiting them kept them. Finding where these children worked wasn't helping us because they were busy and under the careful watch of "guardians", we needed to find them where they lived to be able to approach them for interviews. So here we were, slowly strolling through, already given permission from a community leader to interview any children who consented. Then out of nowhere a door opened. Literally.

A girl walked out, about 16 or 17, and she started chatting with one of our researchers. Then she was leading him inside, and we waved the whole town along with us. The four of us went down a dark, damp hallway, leading up to a slanted ladder. The ladder was in utter darkness, we fumbled ahead of us hoping not to fall. The top of the ladder opened up into a room with cement walls and floor, with laundry hanging out to dry, but nothing hanging on the walls. We followed the young girl into a small room, where two more young people were sitting. One girl was much smaller, thin, pretty, sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest; the boy next to her was also about 16, looking up at us quickly, then looking back at the floor.

We sat with them, introduced ourselves, explained the research. They were visibly nervous, talking quietly amongst themselves. We assured them we would keep their information confidential, showed them exactly what we would write down, told them we'd interviewed over 100 other children in the area. We explained that they could skip any questions they didn't want to answer or end the interview at any time. Glancing up and down at the door, one girl got up and dead-bolted it from the inside.  But they were still nervous, so with the consent of one girl, we started to conduct an interview with one girl, so the others could hear the questions. One question at a time the children relaxed, but then one of them got a text. The chatted quietly. The interview continued, although hesitantly. Another text. More whispering. The other researchers told me they were worried that their boss would know we were there and they would get in trouble. When they said trouble their faces didn't convey worry about getting yelled at, it was fear.

They asked us to sneak out one at a time. My heart beat faster. You can't sneak me out of anywhere on a good day, but tall white lady coming out into a small insular community that houses and exploits children? Not a chance in hell. But the children said we could come back the next day, when their boss was out. They wanted to help us, tell us about their journey from home to Jakarta. After exchanging mobile numbers we scooped up our belongings and quickly walked back out through the darkness and damp concrete. A man in a towel eyed us suspiciously as we walked through the common area, we kept our eyes down and walked past him without a word.
We walked outside, pausing to greet local community members, leaving the area in pairs rather than as a big group. The researchers handed over their research materials once we were out of sight, as I take them home daily to ensure confidentiality. We would come back, but I wasn't invited this time, the two girls and boy agreed that I would draw to much attention and might get them in trouble. But they were happy to invite the other three team members back again. Prioritizing their personal safety while making an effort to have their voices heard. I've never been so happy to be told I wasn't wanted.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Where do you work again?

If you've ever said to yourself... "How did she get her job?" or "I want her job" or "Her job sounds stupid, why would you want a job like that", here's a little number that a friend of mine wrote about the process of applying for jobs with humanitarian organizations and what some of the people who apply may be like. A bit of satire for you on this sunny Friday.

Dear Hiring Manager for [insert International Humanitarian Organization],

I would like to apply for the position of [insert vague sounding job title that has no meaning outside of the given organization]. I believe that my educational background and skills make me uniquely suited to this position. So far in life I have proven myself capable of taking on the challenges required for this position, which I understand pays under $20,000 a year for working in one of the most dangerous countries in the world and undertaking tasks that no one else wants to do.
As you can see from my tiny-font, two page resume, I attended a top level university where I excelled at taking on more than I could possibly handle while maintaining a high GPA, completing 12 internships, and finding opportunities to travel to Western Europe where I was enthralled by the ancient architecture and many art museums. My travels prompted me to do a semester abroad where I discovered a disdain for “tourists” who travel in packs taking pictures of 50 monuments in a single day instead of spending hours at cafes drinking wine and smoking like real Europeans. After my study abroad experience, I completed my senior honors thesis on the topic of [insert esoteric topic of no interest to the majority of the word]. Upon graduation with highest honors, I took a year to backpack around the world to extremely poor countries where I spent most of my time drinking local beers and posing for pictures with street children. This experience led me to want to help alleviate poverty. I therefore obtained a volunteer position in which I dedicated a couple years of my life to living in a mud hut. While I did not have cable television, I was able to use this time to learn curse words in five tribal languages, grow dreadlocks, and learn to drum. These skills will undoubtedly prove essential in my future career.
After this unique experience, I attended graduate school where I obtained a Masters degree in appearing humble while actually making other people feel inadequate and uninformed. From my peers I soon learned that there is a hierarchy to international work, and I became determined to not just help poor people, but to help the poorest and most desperate people, preferably those living in war torn countries under military dictatorships where the chance of being kidnapped, blown up, or summarily executed is very high. Only by working under the very worst of conditions can I prove to myself and my peers that I am in fact as ballsy as they are and just as willing to die for a project that is under-funded, poorly planned and probably has no chance of actually helping anyone. This experience will allow me to live on a permanent adrenaline rush, which will mean that I do not need to use drugs the way my over-privileged peers do. At the same time, it will allow me to become more arrogant and cynical and give me the credibility needed to scoff at anyone who questions the effectiveness of my chosen career. Following this, I intend to return to the States where I will land a cushy job at a university or think tank and get paid an exorbitant amount of money to create policy guidelines that are not possible to carry out in the real world.
As you can see I have spent the past seven years of my life working unpaid for the friends of my semi well-connected parents, and am enormously in debt as a result of my determination to live in the world’s most expensive city while attending the world’s most expensive graduate school. While my high school friends are married with kids, houses, and cars, I am still using my parent’s address and couch surfing in a city where a glass of wine costs $12. However, a position at your organization will enable me to add to the number of visas in my passport, give me stories to tell about being shot at by rebel armies, and imagine that I am helping people by living in poverty with them. Thank you for your consideration, I look forward to hearing from you.

P.S. do not ignore this letter because I have cc’d my professor who used to work for your organization as well as a family friend who is your boss.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Boarding House

One of the things involved in this research is ethnographic mapping, for us it's essentially a long way of saying getting to know a neighborhood and identifying the children living there who fit within the parameters of our study. Once we have identified the children as a group, we work on sorting them into sub-groups, in this case by the type of job they do, where they live, time spent in Jakarta and so on. Once we know our sub-groups we identify where on our map we can find them, what time of day, what they're likely to be doing, so we can organize ourselves, meet them, and hopefully conduct an interview or two.

One of the sub-groups we identified in Jakarta was scavengers. We've all seen the pictures of children in Brazil or India or Mexico standing in a trash heap, a graveyard of tires and plastic bags and refrigerators, poking among the refuse with a stick, looking for things they can use or sell. Here children also go among trash outside of shops or homes looking for things like plastic or metal. Children who scavenge also go to food markets, sweeping rice that has fallen onto the ground during sales to take home with them and cook. 

Walking along the train tracks in East Jakarta, there were makeshift shelters on both sides of the tracks, unclaimed real estate because of the dust and the noise, it was the perfect place to build a home if you couldn't afford land or rent. These homes are made of iron sheeting, cardboard, discarded wooden planks, stolen pieces of fencing. When researchers first told me that many children were living in boarding houses, I pictured large buildings with mean caretakers, the boarding houses of movies and stories. But as we walked along the tracks they pointed out temporary shelters, calling them boarding houses. Ah yes, houses made of boards.

Two researchers entered one of the houses after being invited in, so as not to cause a stir with my foreign-ness I hid outside around the corner, sitting on a wall and watching the busy movement of the community. But then one of the men living in this boarding house saw me and brought me inside. A new cardboard box had been torn apart and laid on the dirt for the occasion of our arrival.  Two interviews were taking place, but the interviewers explained that I spoke no bahasa indonesia, and therefore could not eavesdrop on these private conversations. So I sat. There were large bags of organized plastic and metal and cardboard that would be taken for recycling, the scavengers paid by the kilo. There was no roof, just the shelter of a tree against which the makeshift building was leaning. Amazingly there was a dispenser for water (obviously stolen from a nearby educational institution), atop of which sat a giant bottle of water. Two boys were interviewed, two adults and their small daughter sat nearby, curious. The other five people who live in this shelter, which is 10 ft x 20 ft at the very most, were out working. I was concurrently sitting in their living room, dining room, bedroom, kitchen and entryway. How kind of them to invite me in.