I find it noteworthy that in the developing world, research has shown that increasing women’s health, education, and economic viability greatly increases the overall health and success of communities. Micro-loans, education on child bearing and rearing, and nutritional information has a much better chance of affecting the rest of the family and the whole community when women are the entry points. It is also women, mostly of color, who are often the ones around the world who end up bearing a disproportionate amount of the poverty burden: by being exploited, bearing children as young teenagers, being the recipient of STDs or AIDS from a traveling partner, caring for children and other family members, as well as working in the field, retreiving water, and cooking and cleaning at home. Several female African teenagers I met in South Africa confided that they didn’t want to get married, because many people’s attitudes were that a married man can have as many partners as he wants, while married women cannot and are expected to always acquiesce, no questions asked, when their husbands want to have sex with them. Faithful married women, then, have no safety net to guard them from getting AIDS or passing it on to their children, not to mention the emotional and spiritual cost that these double standards set up for those individuals. All of these roles – the option to positively build up families, and the negative cost that too many women incur – deeply impact a society’s health.
A recent article covers the increase of “fistulas” around the world – the obstetric nightmare where (mainly) young girls who are unable to deliver their first child have a dead baby lodged in their birth canal and broken urethras and/or bowels from the pressure of a failed delivery. They need surgery and are often incontinant, in great pain, shunned socially, and obviously have the added pain of a failed delivery. This article is not just meant to be gross or show an extreme issue, it points out a real health issue that women are facing every day around the world. Many things contribute to this suffering – pregnancy at too young of an age, social norms about sex and being married, limited ideas about women’s roles and empowerment, education, health care access, community support, faithful interpretations of caring for married partners, reasons that men have to leave their own communities to work elsewhere, lack of economic viability in communities to support local health care staff, etc. They are all linked.
Article excerpt: “The fistulas point to the broader plight of millions of African women: poverty; early marriage; maternal deaths; a lack of rights, independence and education; a generally low standing. One in 18 Nigerian women dies during childbirth, compared with one in 2,400 in Europe, the Population Fund says. A larger share of African women die in childbirth than anywhere else in the world.”
I am still learning about all of the pieces that come together to create health or brokeness in poverty-stricken communities, but part of what the Millenium Development Goals point to is this inter-connected nature of fighting poverty and brokenness. MDG 3 and 5 both point directly to educating and empowering women, and improving maternal health. These are linked to eradicating extreme poverty, stopping the spread of diseases, acheving universal primary education, etc. because success in one area feeds into success in the others areas.
I am sickened that women, some much younger then me, have stories like this to share. I know that at one level, changing this reality is complicated and takes time and involves many players all doing their part, including the women themselves. On a more important level, I would argue that we need to eradicate this and related suffering/loss of life, because it is unacceptable. It is wrong. It is not how life was intended for these young girls, their babies, or their communities. As U2’s “Crumbs From Your Table,” says, ‘where you are born should not determine whether you live or die’. I pray that we will know how to act, be daring in our compassion toward the multiple health crisis that can seem too overwhelming and too removed, do justice in our work and in our churches whenever we can speak out about international aid and debt/trade justice, and that we can faithfully be witnesses to these lives and deaths.