THREE thousand years ago, a man called Lemuel wrote a glowing description of a capable wife. This is recorded in the Bible in Proverbs chapter 31. The woman whose merits he extolled was certainly busy. She looked after her family, traded in the marketplace, bought and sold land, made clothes for her household, and worked in the fields.
This woman was not taken for granted. ‘Her children call her blessed, and her husband praises her.’ Such a wife is a treasure. The Bible says, “She is worth far more than rubies.”—Proverbs 31:10-28, New International Version.
Since Lemuel’s time, women’s work has become, if anything, more complicated. Their 20th-century role often requires them to be wives, mothers, nurses, teachers, breadwinners, and farmers—all at the same time. Countless women make heroic sacrifices just to ensure that their children have enough to eat. Do not all these women too deserve appreciation and praise?
Women as Breadwinners
Today more women than ever have to work outside the home to help support their family or are the sole support of their family. The book Women and the World Economic Crisis notes a report that stated: “Domestic work is not the only work women do. There are relatively few women anywhere in the world who can claim to be ‘just a housewife.’” And women’s work is rarely glamorous. Although magazines or television soap operas may depict women as executives in plush offices, the reality is usually very different. The vast majority of the world’s women toil long hours for scant material reward.
Hundreds of millions of women work on the land, cultivating crops, tending small family plots, or caring for livestock. This labor—usually underpaid or unpaid—feeds half the world. “In Africa, 70 per cent of the food is grown by women, in Asia the figure is 50-60 per cent and in Latin America 30 per cent,” reports the book Women and the Environment.
When women do have paid employment, they usually earn less than male workers, simply because they are women. This discrimination is a particularly bitter pill to swallow for a mother who is the family’s only breadwinner, a role that is becoming more and more common. A United Nations report estimates that between 30 and 50 percent of all households in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America depend on a woman as their main provider. And even in the more developed lands, an increasing number of women have had to become the main provider.
Rural poverty throughout much of the developing world is accelerating this trend. A husband who finds it a constant struggle to feed his family may decide to move to a nearby city or even another country to obtain work. He leaves his wife behind to care for the family. If he is fortunate enough to find a job, he sends paychecks home. But despite his good intentions, this often does not continue. The family he has left behind may sink deeper into poverty, and their well-being now depends upon the mother.
This vicious circle, aptly described as the “feminization of poverty,” throws an enormous burden on millions of women. “Households headed by women, estimated to be one-third of the total worldwide, are many times more likely to be poor than those headed by men, and the number of such households is increasing,” explains the book Women and Health. But difficult as it is, putting food on the table is not the only challenge women face.
Mothers and Teachers
A mother also has to care for the emotional welfare of her children. She plays a vital role in helping a child learn about love and affection—lessons that may be just as important as satisfying his physical needs. In order to develop into a well-balanced adult, a child needs a warm, secure environment while growing up. Once again, a mother’s role is crucial.
In the book The Developing Child, Helen Bee writes: “A warm parent cares about the child, expresses affection, frequently or regularly puts the child’s needs first, shows enthusiasm for the child’s activities, and responds sensitively and empathically to the child’s feelings.” Children who have received such warmth from a caring mother should certainly show her their appreciation.—Proverbs 23:22.
Through breast-feeding, many mothers provide a warm environment for their child right from birth. Especially in poor households a mother’s own milk is an invaluable gift she can give to her newborn. (See box on pages 10-11.) Interestingly, the Bible tells us that the apostle Paul compared his warm affection for the Christians in Thessalonica to that of a “nursing mother” who “cherishes her own children.”—1 Thessalonians 2:7, 8.
Besides feeding and cherishing her children, the mother is often their principal teacher. “Listen, my son, to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother,” counsels the Bible, alluding to the extensive part mothers play in educating their children. (Proverbs 1:8) It is mainly the mother or grandmother who patiently teaches the child to speak, to walk, and to do household chores and countless other things.
Compassion Sorely Needed
One of the greatest gifts that women can give their families is compassion. When a family member falls sick, the mother takes on the role of nurse, while still caring for all her other responsibilities. “Women do in fact provide most of the health care in the world,” explains the book Women and Health.
A mother’s compassion may even motivate her to eat less herself so that her children do not go without food. Researchers have found that some women view their food intake as sufficient even though they are malnourished. They are so accustomed to giving the larger share to their husbands and children that as long as they can still work, they consider themselves adequately fed.
Sometimes a woman’s compassion expresses itself in her concern for the local environment. That environment matters to her, since she also suffers when drought, desertification, and deforestation impoverish the land. In one town in India, women were outraged when they learned that a lumber company was going to cut down about 2,500 trees in a nearby forest. The women needed those trees for food, fuel, and fodder. When the loggers arrived, the women were already in place, hands joined, protectively encircling the trees. ‘You will have to cut off our heads if you want to cut down the trees,’ the women told the loggers. The forest was saved.
“Give Her the Reward She Has Earned”
Whether in the role of breadwinner, mother, teacher, or wellspring of compassion, a woman is worthy of respect and recognition, as is her work. The wise man Lemuel, who spoke so highly of a capable wife, valued both a woman’s work and her counsel. In fact, the Bible explains that his message was largely derived from instruction his mother had given him. (Proverbs 31:1) Lemuel was convinced that a conscientious wife and mother should not be taken for granted. “Give her the reward she has earned,” he wrote. “Her works bring her praise.”—Proverbs 31:31, NIV.
However, when Lemuel recorded those views, they were not just a reflection of human thinking. They are recorded in the Bible, which is God’s Word. “All Scripture is inspired of God.” (2 Timothy 3:16) Those sentiments reflect Almighty God’s view of women, since God inspired those passages in the Bible for our instruction.
Further, God’s inspired Word states that husbands should be “assigning [their wives] honor.” (1 Peter 3:7) And at Ephesians 5:33, the husband is told: “Let each one of you individually so love his wife as he does himself.” Indeed, Ephesians 5:25 says: “Husbands, continue loving your wives, just as the Christ also loved the congregation and delivered up himself for it.” Yes, Christ expressed such love for his followers that he was willing to die for them. What a fine, unselfish example he set for husbands! And the standards that Jesus taught and lived by reflected God’s standards, which are recorded in the Bible for our benefit.
Yet, despite their hard work in so many areas, many women rarely get credit for what they do. How can they even now improve their lot in life? Also, is there any chance that attitudes toward them will change? What are the future prospects for women?
Three Ways a Woman Can Improve Her Lot
Education. There are about 600 million illiterate women in the world—most of whom have never had the chance to go to school. You yourself may have had little schooling, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot educate yourself. It isn’t easy, but many women have succeeded. "Religious reasons can play an important role in motivating adults to acquire literacy skills,” explains the book Women and Literacy. Your being able to read the Bible for yourself is a fine reward for learning to read. But there are many other advantages.
Not only does the literate mother have greater economic opportunities but she can also learn about good health practices. The Indian state of Kerala dramatically illustrates the benefits of literacy. Although this region is below average as far as income is concerned, 87 percent of its womenfolk are literate. Interestingly, in the same state, infant mortality is five times lower than in the rest of India; on the average, women live 15 years longer; and all the girls attend school.
Naturally, the literate mother stimulates the learning process in her children—no mean feat. The education of girls is an excellent investment. Nothing else has such power to improve family health and to improve the lives of women themselves, notes the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) publication The State of the World’s Children 1991. No doubt about it, reading and writing skills will help you to be a better mother and provider.
Health. As a mother, you need to look after yourself, especially if you are pregnant or nursing. Can you improve your diet? Nearly two thirds of pregnant women in Africa as well as in southern and western Asia are clinically anemic. Apart from sapping your energy, anemia increases the risks associated with childbirth and makes a malarial attack more likely. Although meat or fish may be scarce or expensive, eggs and iron-rich fruits or vegetables might be available. Don’t allow superstition to stop you from eating nutritious foods, and don’t let local customs rob you of your share of the family’s food.
Breast-feeding is good for you as well as for your child. Breast milk is cheaper, more hygienic, and more nourishing than any substitute. UNICEF calculates that a million child deaths each year could be avoided if mothers were to breast-feed babies for the first four to six months of their lives. Of course, if the mother has a contagious disease that is known to be passed on through breast milk, then a safe feeding alternative should be used.
Make sure that there is proper ventilation if you cook inside your home on an open fire. "Exposure to the smoke and toxic gases of cooking is probably the most serious occupational health hazard known today,” cautions the book Women and Health.
Do not smoke tobacco, whatever the pressures. Pervasive cigarette advertising in the developing world is targeting women, trying to convince them that smoking is sophisticated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Smoking harms your children and can kill you. It is calculated that eventually a quarter of all smokers are killed by their tobacco addiction. Moreover, experts warn that the chances of a first-time cigarette smoker becoming addicted to tobacco are extremely high.
Hygiene. Your example and your advice regarding hygiene are crucial to the health of your family. The publication Facts for Life outlines the following basic steps for good hygiene:
• Wash your hands with soap and water after any contact with excrement and before handling food. Make sure your children wash their hands before eating.
• Use a latrine, and keep it clean and covered. If this is not possible, defecate as far away from your house as possible, and bury the excrement immediately.—Compare Deuteronomy 23:12, 13.
• Endeavor to use clean water for your household. To this end, keep wells covered and use clean utensils for carrying water.
• If you have no access to safe drinking water, boil the water and then allow it to cool before drinking. Although unboiled water may look clean, it can still be contaminated.
• Remember that uncooked food is much more likely to transmit an infection. Foods that are to be eaten raw should be washed before eating and then consumed as soon as possible. Other foods should be cooked thoroughly, especially meat and poultry.
• Keep food clean and covered so that insects or animals cannot contaminate it.
• Burn or bury domestic waste.
Jehovah’s Witnesses organize free literacy classes as part of their extensive program of Bible education.
In some lands, superstition holds that women should not eat fish, eggs, or chicken during pregnancy, for fear of harming the unborn child. Sometimes custom requires the woman to eat what is left over, once the men and boys have finished eating.