By Jenny Eaton Dyer, PhD
I am so excited to be here at “Why Christian” to debate and discuss and dialogue why we are Christians and the corollary questions: What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? As Rachel noted, “It is complicated.”
These questions of why we believe what we believe and what exactly does “Christian” mean are questions I’ve spent time thinking and writing about over the past 20 years. And in deeply wrestling with these questions, translations and interpretations of scripture, theodicy, doctrines, and denominations; I think the answer is really is quite simple: to love. And to love everybody.
Yet it is the most difficult calling. Because to love everybody means just that.
To welcome the refugee, the sick and the imprisoned; to care for the widow, to feed the orphan, and sit in places and with people with whom sometimes we are uncomfortable. And we will fail at times with a gaffe or a moment of missing the mark. But we must press on to do better and be better.
And over the last 24 hours, I’ve listened to some amazing women speak on the persistence and virtues of defiance, grace, death, resurrection, and finding one’s voice. All of these concepts deeply resonate with my own message today on how we can participate in global health issues.
Today, I want to talk about one way to love a particular population: mothers & children, in developing nations. These women and children live in some of the most dire of circumstances; and they represent some of the most vulnerable and overlooked people worldwide.
I want to talk about the power of advocacy and, like Emily, the power of your voice.
In Proverbs 31, before the famous lines about the virtuous wife and woman, King Lemuels mother offers a little bit of advice to her son:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
For the last 15 years, I’ve been working in the field of global health and development. I spent the first seven launching with Bono what has become the ONE Campaign -- galvanizing the church across the United States to stand up, speak up for those with HIV/AIDS and living in extreme poverty.
When we began, less than 50,000 people in Africa had access to anti-retroviral medication. Today, thanks to your American tax dollars, over 14 million people now have access to medication to lead long lives, to take care of their children, to go back to work, and to contribute to sustainable futures for their community.
How did this happen? It happened because of the power of advocacy: people took a stand; called their congressional leaders and said WE care about these people struggling with HIV/AIDS albeit a world away.
Since then, I have been leading Senator Bill Frist’s organization, Hope Through Healing Hands.
For the last two years, we have decided to hone in on the issues of maternal & child health. These issues take on a broad spectrum of issues: prenatal care, skilled care during birth, breastfeeding, vaccines, postnatal care and more….but more specifically, we think that perhaps the most critical intervention IS healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, or family planning.
The data on this topic is breathtaking. First, regarding timing of pregnancies:
- Pregnancy & childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide.
- A young woman becoming pregnant in her late teens is twice as likely to die as when she is in her early 20s.
- And if pregnant before age 15, the risk is five-fold that of women age 20-24
- Even if she survives, she faces a high risk of fistula or other disability.
- And the infants of these younger mothers are up to 10 times as likely to die before their first birthday.
These young women are just not physically ready to have children.
How about spacing of pregnancies?
- Simply put, infants born between 3 to 5 years apart are 3 times more likely to reach age 5 than those born less than 2 years apart.
- Children conceived within 2 years of a previous birth are at dramatically higher risk of:
- Being stillborn
- Or dying in infancy
So that's the data we're responding to, when we talk about healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, or family planning.
In the developing world, where many live on less than $1.25 a day, and health care is often obsolete or radically underserved, the reality is that many women die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth – actually about 300,000 women per year -- when there are simple, preventable measures at hand to save lives.
We want women around the world to have proper access to education and resources to better time and space their pregnancies and plan appropriately for their families.
Our work is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We are backing Melinda’s initiative for women’s health and women’s empowerment. She made the commitment to prioritize family planning, or healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, at the foundation for the next decade. This summer she interviewed with Christianity Today to divulge how her faith has been the impetus for her foundation and her work in global health and development.
In conjunction with that work, we direct the Faith-based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide, rallying faith leaders across the United States to take a stand and commit to advocate and speak up for the 220 million women around the world who say they want access to counseling and contraceptives but may not have that opportunity at present.
Healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies is at the heart of so many other global health challenges:
- Combating extreme poverty
- Gender equality
- Keeping kids in school; keeping young moms in school
- Improving maternal/child health
- Prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV
- Sex trafficking, and
- Economic sustainability.
If we can address family planning, we will have a ripple effect to solve many other issues.
As a part of this campaign, we compiled The Mother & Child Project: Raising Our Voices for Health and Hope. Over 47 voices – from Rachel Held Evans “A Momma Knows” to Senator Bill Frist’s “Contraceptives as a Pro-Life Cause in Developing World,”– contributed to this book to address the critical issues of family planning for women’s health.
Perhaps the best essays of the book are from the women themselves. Mothers in Burundi, India and Kenya and Ethiopia. Women who come from all different backgrounds, with different languages, and different challenges. All note the powerful role that family planning has played in their lives. It has been so exciting to share this publication of these women’s voices --- those who otherwise may have had no voice on the public stage -- showing them how their stories have been published, heard, and are making a difference.
We gave a free copy of The Mother & Child Project to everyone at Why Christian?. We invite you to learn more about these women and these issues. We also have a Discussion Guide for Sunday School class or Book Club. This guide is an incredible way to begin the conversation about what you and your community can do to save the lives of women and children around the world.
But back to why we are here today. Advocacy.
Today, on behalf of millions of women around the world, we ask if you will take a stand. We ask you to speak up for these women and advocate to protect and increase U.S. foreign assistance funding for maternal & child health and healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.
We want people of faith, leaders of faith -- like yourselves--to join our coalition and stand up and speak out for these women and children worldwide. We want your support. We need your support. And we need your support with YOUR voice.
Heres an interesting statistic:
When Americans are polled about what percentage of the U.S. government budget goes to foreign assistance, over 50% say 25%. And they wish it was just 10%. Neither are the reality. We do not tithe. We actually give a fraction of 1% for global health and development for developing nations: 2/3 of 1 percent. Less than a penny to the dollar.
There is room to give.
Especially when these pennies help save the lives of millions around the world. Investing in the health of these women helps bolster them, their families, their communities, and their nations for economic sustainability. Our pennies reap benefits beyond measure.
This is why I am a follower of Jesus. This is the wisdom of King Lemuel’s mother in action. This is loving our neighbor, even if a continent away.
This is part of our calling, as Christians and part of our story. To whom much is given, much is expected.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today!