A few years ago, a bout of the flu and an overdose of daytime television catalysed a decision I had meant to make for years. Somewhere around the third consecutive day of infomercials broadcasting the wasted bodies and sad eyes of poverty-stricken children, I picked up the phone and said those fateful words, "Yes, I would like to sponsor a child." It seemed like such a straightforward decision. Then came the question that almost knocked me off my feet.
"Do you have a preference for the gender, age or location of your sponsor child?"
It had never occurred to me that you were able to select a sponsor child the way you might select a pet from a shelter. The question almost seemed offensive - as though I were being asked to play God with the futures of any number of starving children, to determine who was the most worthy of my sponsorship dollar. So I was surprised to hear myself smoothly responding;
"A girl, please. Give me the first little girl on your list."
Of course, I had my reasons. There is plenty of evidence that the weight of poverty falls the hardest upon women and girls. Where food resources and educational opportunities are scarce, it is daughters rather than sons who tend to miss out. I liked the idea of giving a little girl a hand up, ensuring she got enough to eat, sending her to school and maybe even paving the way for a tertiary education, meaningful vocational training, and a way out of poverty. It sat well with my beliefs as a feminist and underdog-supporter to help the person I thought was least likely to benefit without it. So, a little girl it was.
This decision never wore particularly heavily on my mind, especially when the photographs and letters from my sponsor child and her family evidenced that she was, indeed, happy, healthy, vaccinated, fed and attending school. Good on me, I thought. Pat on the back for helping out the little girl in need.
And then came the letter. My sponsor-family had moved out of the area, wrote World Vision. However, they have taken the liberty of assigning me a new sponsor child so that I may continue to help families in need. Accompanying the letter was a photograph of my new sponsor child - a little boy in Central America. They "hope this is not a problem".
Of course, it's a brilliant tactic to retain sponsors, as it's much easier to refuse a new sponsorship than to cancel one that you are already associated with. They gave me a face, a young, adorable face, to associate with my new sponsorship, one that I and anybody else made of less than 50% concrete would have terrible trouble refusing. But part of me was annoyed. This totally ruined my little feminist plan to promote the well-being of the global sisterhood! I didn't sign up to be thrown a random child, I wanted to choose, god-damnit! I should call them up and let them have a piece of my mind.
Then came the creeping fingers of moral panic, coldly up my spine. Was I seriously on the verge of abandoning a child in poverty because they were the wrong gender? Wasn't this male child also in need of food, schooling and medical care? Wasn't this the very type of sexism and gender-based system of privilege that I was seeking to avoid by sponsoring a girl in the first place? Stumped again, I never made the call. For almost a year now, I've been sponsoring the little boy, and never do I receive a statement from World Vision without feeling that churning feeling of reprehension in my stomach, knowing that I would rather sponsor a girl but also that it is morally indefensible to make the switch.
Our choices and prejudices about who to help creep up on us in other unlikely places. For example, I recently came across the disturbing fact that black cats in animal shelters are euthanased at twice the rate of cats of other colours due to far lower adoption rates.* Whether it's down to superstitious beliefs, individual evaluations that black cats are too "plain", "common", or "lacking in distinguishing features", or even latent racism, the fact remains that black cats are routinely overlooked. Several animal rescue groups have even begun educational campaigns encouraging potential pet owners to go for black when adopting a cat or kitten in order to redress this imbalance.**
I breathed a sigh of self-satisfied relief reading such articles because, happily, my beloved rescue-kitty is blacker than the Ace of Spades. I'm helping the problem! One less black cat euthanased! But, in consideration that only about one-quarter of dumped cats are eventually adopted out, I have to acknowledge that my choice was utterly moot in real terms. No matter which colour we choose to take home with us, another two or three cats of various colours are hitting the electricity. Adopting more black cats won't reduce overall euthanasia rates, simply skew them towards a more equal colour scheme. If this is equality, I'm not sure what the point is.
Of course, giving advantageous treatment to a statistically disadvantaged group, be it women or black cats, seems like the responsible thing to do. I recall that, at the shelter where I adopted my little Black Panther, the kitten who had received the most expressions of interest was a little tabby, missing an eye. Everybody wanted to adopt him, the workers said, because everybody thought that nobody else would. Everybody wanted to be the saint who helped the overlooked and marginalised, with never a thought that they were creating a new status of marginalisation for the supposedly "privileged". Their group may look stronger, but it is still comprised of vulnerable individuals, be they cats on death row or children in poverty.
Is this the area to which I verged in seeking to send my finite resources to a girl in poverty, rather than a boy? I hope I have made the right decision in the eyes of the world. A little girl will miss out, but, unlike my little boy, I will never see her face. More importantly, I will never look at either face and say, "I want to help someone, but sorry, I had something else in mind."
Would you choose the gender, age or location of a sponsor child?
And seriously - aren't black cats just awesome?