Too often these women have no rights or representation of any kind. They are expected to suffer in silence and to do otherwise can mean serious physical harm. For these women the suffering occurs on many levels. Not only is their own personal safety and well-being at risk but also those of their children. They are the guardians and nurturers of the innocent and the helpless, and they attempt to protect these young lives with virtually no help or resources.

Of course, being a mother is incredibly difficult under the best of circumstances; however, trying to take care of your children under the life threatening conditions of extreme poverty is overwhelming. With no medicine or medical care available it is almost impossible to keep a child healthy. Without vaccines children fall victim to a variety diseases, and when you factor in the lack of clean water and sanitation the challenge becomes even greater.

Just providing enough food for your loved ones is a life and death struggle. Think of the frustration a mother must feel as she watches her daughter grow weak and become increasingly susceptible to illness and disease all because of a lack of nutrition. Imagine her anguish when her child can no longer fight the ravages of hunger and slowly wastes away until her short life is over. And because they give every scrap of food they can find to their children in order for them to have at least some chance at survival, women themselves face malnutrition and starvation. Denying themselves becomes a way of life, as they put the needs of everyone else ahead of their own. Families should not have to live this way. A woman should not be forced to hold her dying child in her arms without any way of helping them.

For women trapped in extreme poverty the most dangerous time in their lives is during childbirth. In sub-Saharan Africa the lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 16, compared to 1 in 2,800 in developed countries. Without pre-natal care or medical attention during delivery the risk to both mother and child soars. Having a baby in extreme poverty is literally life threatening. And should the mother die and leave behind other small children their chances of survival drops dramatically. A child who has lost her mother is 10 times more likely to die before the age of five than a child who has not.

Poor women on the African continent have been decimated by HIV/AIDS. 75% of all Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 who are HIV-positive are women. An entire generation is at risk of dying from this killer, and these infected women run the danger of passing the disease on to their children at birth and while nursing. The social stigma attached to HIV means that many women keep silent when they are diagnosed. They do not want to become outcasts in their own communities, so they suffer alone in silence without medical treatment or any type of emotional or psychological support.

In many parts of the world women are considered second class citizens. They are deprived of basic human rights and they are physically abused. Among the most brutal forms of mistreatment they suffer is rape. It is a dehumanizing attack that not only causes bodily harm but also immense mental and emotional suffering as well. Rape is the ultimate form of violation. It is the total lack of respect for the victim as a human being. It is a savage act of cruelty that destroys the victim’s sense of self-worth and well-being. It causes physical and mental pain, spreads disease and creates unwanted pregnancies. It is one of the most contemptible types of behavior humanity is capable of.

Through all these challenges, women themselves face hunger, illness and disease. They face violence and abuse. They are denied equal citizenship. They are deprived of the kind of rights we take for granted. Extreme poverty is a complex problem, but at its root is the deplorable way that women are treated. Until they are accorded the same rights, respect and dignity that men demand we will not be able to measurably improve their lives.

It will require a new mindset to elevate women to equal status. It must be understood that they have every right to live a healthy life in peace, free from abuse, violence and degradation. They are our mothers, our wives, our daughters and our sisters. We are obligated to treat them with the love and respect they deserve. If we do that, we can begin to lift up those who are living on the edge in desperation. We can stop the violence and premature death. We can allow families to remain together and flourish.





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