My thoughts on empathy as a tool for social justice have been lingering for some time, though I have not identified it as such until very recently. This identification was spurred by my recent conversations with peers and friends, both in Canada and Guatemala, concerning the pervasiveness of child marriages in that country. This topic recently came to my attention through a New York Times article written by Stephanie Sinclair entitled “Child, Bride, Mother”. In Guatemala, 53 percent of women age 20 to 24 are married before age 18, and 13 percent before age 15 (Sinclair). This norm, prevalent in more than 50 countries, strips young girls and women of many of their human rights, fuelling a cycle of social, economic and political oppression.
Conversations with my peers and friends in Canada on this topic have been interesting and insightful. Everyone acknowledged the gender injustices surrounding this prevalent norm but when the big question of “What can we do to change this?” was pressed, the most common response seemed to be: “I’m not sure, those are big issues. I am just happy to be living in Canada.” I have to admit, I shared the same feeling in that moment. However, my feelings soon shifted after talking with some of my female friends in Guatemala. This topic is very personal as many of their friends or families are part of this statistic. Patriarchy (“machismo”) manifests itself in many aspects of their daily lives and is a constant struggle. Accurate empathetic insight into their struggles re-engaged me as an individual which was followed by a sense of responsibility.
This example is not used to make claims of some people being more empathetic than others. Rather, it is to highlight the gap or distance between perspectives on social justice issues as a lived reality as opposed to a topic of conversation. This gap, I feel, disconnects us as humans and strips away important perspectives that have the potential to stimulate empathy.
I believe empathy has a critical role to play in creating positive social change. Cultivating empathy requires us to step outside of ourselves and experience the world through other perspectives, particularly those of the grassroots. This personal interaction requires us to not only think critically, but understand the needs and conditions of those around us- near and far. In brief, I believe that empathy fuels connection. Connection, in turn, builds solidarity that can lead to social change. I encourage everyone to not only critically engage with social justice issues, but explore their own empathy as a tool for social justice.