Karen Burton Mains, author

In my previous special report for GFA World titled “100 Million Missing Women,” I unpacked the plight of missing women on a global scale and what governments and NGOs are doing to address the problem. The sheer magnitude of a global issue can make it difficult to internalize the gravity of the situation, so in this update, I drill down on a specific aspect of this problem that exists in North America — one that needs to be brought to the attention of the public.

Sometimes, when exploring complex world problems or catastrophes, such as a hurricane obliterating a whole community, it helps me if I sit down for a few moments and withdraw into silence. Then, I take some time to imagine myself and my family dealing with the same kind of total ruin.

Searching missing women on iPhone.

Cries to end violence against indigenous women get louder. A movement to draw attention to Native American women and girls who have been killed or reported missing is expanding in some areas to include males.
Photo by NBC Montana

So in order to understand the dynamic of what is termed MMIW (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women), I took some time to ask myself what this might look like in the community where my husband, David, and I now live.

Our town is a little place, thought unexceptional by many. Recently, I was sharing with friends about the winter banners hanging on main street that say: “One Good Friend Warms Many Months.” Our little town is a basically overlooked western suburb with an immigrant community that grew and thrived because, long ago, Campbell Soup planted a large factory here on the far western edge of other suburbs growing around Chicago. That plant now stretches empty and abandoned, covering several acres, a quiet witness to economic collapse.

For the sake of discussion, let me impose a hypothetical situation upon my unremarkable little town with its population of 27,086 according to 2019 Census Bureau data. The real drama from which I would like to draw a hypothetical is the one that has recently been drawing attention from national reporting agencies and that I mentioned in the opening paragraphs. In certain areas of the United States and Canada, there is a horrific epidemic, which some term a “genocide,” of murdered and missing indigenous women.1 Let me impose the statistical dilemma, now much-reported.

Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in front of Parliament

Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in front of Parliament in Ottawa in October 2016. Photo by Delusion23, Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Data on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

It was not until 2016 that the government of Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, established a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. This was a much-belated response to repeated calls from indigenous leaders, social activists and multiple non-government agencies that were outraged that nothing was being done about the growing problem. The term “indigenous people” includes citizenry from First Nations, Inuit, Métis and Native American communities.

In 2011, Statistics Canada reported the following concerning Aboriginal females:2

  • It was estimated that from 1997 to 2000, the rate of homicide for Aboriginal females was almost seven times higher than other females.
  • Compared to non-indigenous females, they were also “disproportionately affected by all forms of violence.”
  • They are also significantly over-represented among female Canadian homicide victims.
  • They are far more likely than other women to go missing.

The statistical incidence of MMIW is so high that the Canadian Inquiry reported that indigenous women and girls represented 16 percent of all female homicides in Canada despite representing only 4 percent of the female population.

16%

of all female homicides in Canada were of indigenous women and girls

No wonder activists, journalists, women’s-safety advocates and law-enforcement agencies have now become vocal in their concerns about examining the reasons for such violence committed against mothers, daughters, girls, women, teenagers and children in this population demographic. Not only has there finally been alarm and public outcry about a decades-old dilemma, but several excellent documentaries are also available on the Internet for concerned viewers. What If? and Silent No More and other news specials examine various case studies of missing women.

Using My Little Town as a Hypothetical Example

First, because of the natural tendency not to be concerned by social dilemmas unless they touch our own lives, let’s stop and aside set some time to attempt to build some empathetic concern. Let’s use my little town with its total population of 27,086 citizens as a hypothetical example. Some 51.1 percent of the population of this far-western Chicago suburb is Hispanic. That would be 13,841 people of Latino origin.

A participant in the Greater Than Fear Rally & March

A participant in the Greater Than Fear Rally & March in Rochester Minnesota. Photo by Lorie Shaull, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For the sake of discussion, let’s divide that number in half, which would broadly represent the population of females within the Latino population of my little town at some 6,920 women and girls. Then, let’s just grab a murdered- or missing-women statistic—let’s say that 24 percent (which pops up in statistics on MMIW dealing with per-hundred ratios, such as the homicide rate for indigenous women in Canada is 24 percent per 100,000 population3) of the MMW in my little town would be almost one-quarter of the estimated 6,920 women and girls who live here. Now let’s expand our acronym from MMIW to MMWG (Murdered and Missing Women and Girls).

That would be some 1,661 victims who had gone missing or been discovered murdered. Bodies have been found face down in the branch of the DuPage River, discovered in a shallow grave, found lifeless along the Prairie Path where many of us like to walk and jog. Of course, these deaths or unaccountable absences wouldn’t have happened over the period of any one year, but would be the aggregate of some 10, 15 or 20 years—who knows exactly how many decades?

Yet I am certain—absolutely, determinedly certain—that if this kind of quiet-but-steady mayhem had occurred in our community, even in the Hispanic percentage with its immigrant roots and now large immigrant population, a large cry would have developed, a shout of horror that would proclaim that my little town was a dangerous place for women to move into, live in or be born into. Stay away! Be warned! Do not look at real estate or contact a realtor.

In addition, some 67.6 percent of my fellow towners are white. So, an estimated half of that would be 34 percent white women and girls. One-quarter of 34 percent would be how many missing and murdered? You do the math.

When there is high incidence of murdered and missing women in any population, doesn’t the normal, the ordinary and the everyday hold the potential of terror?

I’m even more certain that if the same demographic had been applied to the white citizenry of my little town, the resultant reaction of distress, concern and investigation would have been tremendous. Wealthy folk who could move would do so. Due to the resulting wave of public outcry, more tax dollars would be assigned to the MMWG disaster. Eventually, the hazardous female environment would be examined by sociologists, written about by PhDs, covered in national news and exploited by carrion-feeders who inevitably make their reputations out of the sensational.

Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma march in June to demand action on missing and murdered indigenous women.

Miranda Muehl, of Mustang, Oklahoma, and others from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma march in June to demand action on missing and murdered indigenous women. Photo by Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

An Imaginative Exercise in Empathetic Fear

The physical facts and data regarding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women are one thing, but imagine, again—if you will, make a leap of attempted understanding—what it must be like for a woman of any age to live in an environment so hostile to her sex that she knows someone who has gone missing or who has been murdered. A grandmother, an aunt, someone’s own mother, a daughter-in-law, a teenager, a teacher, a little girl has disappeared. A body has been found discarded by a roadside. And no one can say for sure exactly what happened. Not only that, the local police don’t take the problem of missing women seriously. Crime labs are overloaded with other, more-immediate concerns. Those gals will show up some day. Someone will find them. They’ll eventually call home.

Think about the nagging uncertainty that comes from running alone for a last-minute errand to a grocery store. Think about driving somewhere alone at night. Think about a walk home from some school event with friends, then think about those last two blocks you must walk alone. Think about a stranger passing you in a car, slowing, getting a good look, then speeding ahead. Think about an argument in a family, about the gun stored and locked in a cabinet but still there. Think about being at home alone. Think about that phone call from a stranger that reports an accident with a family member being harmed and you needing to come to aid.

When there is high incidence of murdered and missing women in any population, doesn’t the normal, the ordinary and the everyday hold the potential of terror? Doesn’t a world surfeited with sunshine, growing things, seasonal changes, rain on the fields and starlight at night get bent out of emotional shape?

The questions raised by the reality of a large demographic of women of any population facing extinction should impale us on the truth that something serious and radical must be done.

And if you or someone you know has survived an attempted incident of rape or kidnapping or brutality, does the world ever seem safe again?

To be caring citizens, we all need to become proficient in these imaginary exercises in order to create empathy for others in distress. In fact, a hallmark of Christian faith has to do with how much we are willing to enter into the suffering of others, into a suffering that at this time in our lives does not touch our present circumstances. In fact, justice mostly begins with a kind of appalled empathy, then it moves to indignation, finally resulting in activism—the attempt to “do something,” to change a wretched environment, to touch one life that has been wrecked by evil.

Rosenda Sophia Strong’s family pose for a portrait near Legends Casino

Rosenda Sophia Strong’s family pose for a portrait near Legends Casino off of Fort Road in Toppenish, Wash. on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Sophia has been missing for four months and was last seen leaving the casino. Her sister, Cissy Strong-Reyes, and brother, Christopher Strong, are preparing a vigil for Rosenda set for February 16. Photo by Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic

A Personal Experience with One Abused Woman

Decades ago, a friend brought a young woman to our home. She was rough, every cell within her tight with anger, and I was overcome by an inexplicable tenderness for her. Given her unwelcoming exterior appearance, I could only conclude that the Holy Spirit had given me this unaccountable tenderness for someone I never had before met.

“Why did you take me into your home?” she inquired over the phone recently, in that personal attempt we all take as we age to make sense of our previous selves.

“Well, let’s see,” I answered, trying to remember. For the sake of privacy, let’s call this woman, now in her 60s, Jennie. “You needed a place to live, and I needed someone to help with the kids, the house, running errands. And—oh, yes—the love I felt for you was an indication to me that we were supposed to take you in.”

A pair of moccasins tops

A pair of moccasins tops are pictured in a handout photo from the 'Walking With Our Sisters' exhibit. The pieces were created to honour missing and murdered native women.
Photo by CTV News

My husband, David, and I (plus our four kids) gave Jennie a safe place, an example of what a pretty healthy family looked like, plus lots and lots and lots of hours listening, answering questions and prayer. At this point, it’s easy to pat oneself on the back and utter a lot of self-congratulation. However, it was Jennie who brought gifts to us. I learned about the capacity of humans to endure untold suffering. I learned about resistance and about the reality of being haunted, if not possessed, by evil strongholds. I learned about the power of love, endurance and eventual gratitude.

Recently, I became ill with an eating disorder, the cause of which a medical team could not identify. Without any intention to do so, I lost 43 pounds. Jennie drove her car 1,000 miles to get to me and stayed for two weeks, pitching in. “I know the routine,” she said upon entering the house. At another time, she flew back across the same 1,000 miles to help me for another two weeks.

You cannot imagine, given our history together, the impact of her prayer on the phone to me. “Dear Lord,” she prayed, her voice still gravelly and sincere, “Karen needs our prayers. I pray that you will bring health back to her again.” I wept on the other end of the line, remembering the once-tight ball of wounded humanity, used again and again by the men in her life from childhood onward to her role as a motorcycle gang moll, this woman who once appeared at my door, brought by a common friend.

And along with the tears, as she prayed, I whispered again and again, Dear Lord … dear Lord … dear Lord. Whenever I get discouraged and begin to question the theology of redemption, in which I am steeped, I remember Jennie.

Missing and Murderdered Indigenous Women Art

From left to right: "Not Forgotten" by Maxine Noel, "Still Standing" by Jon Labillois, "Where is Her Voice" by Cathie Jamieson

Something Must Be Done

The questions raised by the reality of a large demographic of women of any population facing extinction should impale us on the truth that something serious and radical must be done. However, educating ourselves on the suffering of others requires that we strive to uncover the truths of the whole MMWG landscape.

More than half

of American Indian and Alaska Native women will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes.

For instance, the first response among analysts as to the cause of high incidence of sexual violation, disappearance or outright murder of females was turned against the nearby males in these indigenous population groups. The consolidated data from some 300 contributing police agencies confirmed this conclusion that some 70 percent of the offenders were of “aboriginal” origin, 25 percent were of non-aboriginal origin, and 5 percent were of unknown ethnicity.4

The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s database, which was established in 2005 to track the actual cases of MMIW, concluded that the consolidated data from those 300-some police agencies was in error and gathered from an extremely limited narrow statistical field of only some 32 homicides of indigenous women and girls.5 The NWCA also determined a bias within the policing community, which appears not to have taken seriously the need to conduct investigations into the actualities of missing women. They preferred instead to consider the problem “a tribal matter” and to conclude that the incidents fell under the purview of local indigenous leadership. Consequently, too many cases had been allowed to “go cold,” and crucial evidence had been lost or discarded.

The actual statistical data, such as that gathered by the United States Department of Justice when it focused on the incidence of missing and murdered women among indigenous peoples, determined that this group is, in reality, usually sexually assaulted, stalked and preyed upon by non-natives.

According to the Department of Justice, “More than half of American Indian and Alaska Native women will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes.”6

Imagine ... what it must be like for a woman of any age to live in an environment so hostile to her sex that she knows someone who has gone missing or who has been murdered.

Much of this is due to the fact that jurisdictional issues have historically left legal loopholes leading to non-native rapists and murderers coming to reservations to “hunt” native women with impunity. Simply said, in many jurisdictions, tribal legal systems have historically been confined to territorial boundaries so that tribal jurisprudence cannot exercise sufficient criminal justice over non-tribal members.

The wheels of justice often grind slowly for victims, particularly when the very laws that have been established allow for perpetrators to go unprosecuted. But in recent years, a deliberate attempt at awareness-raising regarding MMIW has finally resulted in a consequent outcry of indignation from news venues, legislators and a recently sensitized public. This has been most heartening.

Women attend the closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

Women attend the closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls on Monday in Gatineau, Quebec. Photo by Chris Wattie/Reuters

In 2018 and 2019, legislation began to move through the systems of local governing institutions. Washington, Minnesota and Arizona have taken steps toward building databases that reflect more-accurate statistics on missing and murdered women and girls. The United States declared May 5, 2018, as a national day of awareness.7 House Bill 2951 of Washington State ordered the state highway patrol to study and report on truths relating to MMIW. And on March 7, 2019, Congress introduced the House of Representatives Bill 1585 to specifically reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which had been eventually repealed.8 Former Senator Heidi Heitkamp sponsored the bill known as Savanna’s Act to increase cooperation and coordination between “Federal, State, Tribal and local law enforcement agencies,” and this cause has now been reintroduced in 2019 by Senator Lisa Murkowski. The gap created without intra-agency interaction has been analyzed as one of the reasons why murdered and missing indigenous women incidents of violence have fallen through the cracks.

Public Outcry as Activism

The REDress Project at Acadia University in 2015.

The REDress Project at Acadia University in 2015.
Photo by Christine Rondeau, Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)

Mostly, what will keep legislative movement and interest alive is public outrage and outcry. A Women’s Memorial March on February 14, Valentine’s Day, was sponsored in downtown Eastside Vancouver, a geographic area notorious for incidents of MMW. These annual marches are intended to highlight the reality of disappeared or murdered women, with family and friends of the missing women, frontline activists and concerned workers stopping at sites pregnant with meaning to memorialize the lives of those who have been lost. The REDress Project is a public art installation where empty red dresses are hung or spread to symbolize those females who are missing or murdered.9

In 2015, the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found murdered and dumped face-down in the Red River in Manitoba. She had been wrapped in a plastic bag that was weighted with stones. The yearly response is a memorial so that people will not forget. Teams of volunteers in canoes and boats search Winnipeg waterways, dragging the waters as a visible demonstration of protest against perpetrators. Running water washes away forensic evidence that leads to conviction.

The Internet is full of faces of the missing. An hour searching these public visual collages will convince any interested party of the numerical incidence of the murdered and the missing. I’ve printed off one of the colored collages of numerous faces and protests and grieving families to help me not forget the hours I’ve spent becoming sensitized to the problem while doing research for this article.

What We Can Do

Perhaps this has become a tiresome reminder: We can do something just by becoming informed.

Those of us untouched by this kind of violence naturally don’t want to know more about it. Information, however, has the possibility of keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe. Of course, we don’t want to see predators behind every tree (or at every stoplight at every lonely road crossing), but we do want to be wise. Pepper spray is a great deterrent. Caution discussions need to be introduced for the extrovert or for the innocent. Self-defense classes need to be taken for the vulnerable, for both men and women.

Researching on Laptop

We can become sensitized. We can undertake individual or group research studies. Most of us don’t want to delve much into the underbelly of our societies. Too often, we have to force ourselves to read the book, watch the documentary, do the Internet search, make a file of the articles we find in magazines or print off on the home office printer. If God happens to “drop someone into your lap” (or bring some woman to your front door), be open to that impulse of mercy... if not to bring them into your own family, at least become a listening and encouraging friend. Believe me, if God is in this encounter, you, despite this person’s distress, will be the primary beneficiary.

Woman praying

We can pray. My husband, David, an ordained minister, now in his senior years, is a proficient and organized intercessor. If he says, “I’ll pray for you,” he does. If he says, “I’m praying for you,” he is. His prayer lists are long, and he lingers for loving moments every day over them. I, however, have always been more spontaneous, praying for folk when I think of them. However, I am convinced that I am not as diligent a pray-er as David. So I’m going to try a new technique. I’m a visual gal: I think a bulletin board of the faces of missing girls and women will stimulate me to keep praying better than a written list in some of the journals I regularly misplace. The collage of faces and protesters and signs and statistics from one of the Internet pages dedicated to the topic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls will do just fine. Printed off in duplicate, then posted over my writing desk, on the hallway bulletin board, on the pinup board in my office—these should keep me reminded, keep me caring, and warn me not to forget.

Hand research statistics

We can impose the statistics of violence on each town in which we live. One day, you too may have the experience (if you haven’t already) of hearing a voice of a woman, a friend you came to love, who survived a horrendous background of abuse, saying on your behalf, “Dear Lord, I pray that you will heal and be near this one I love …” And then, you too, moved deeply at this evidence of God’s redemptive activity, like me, may find yourself weeping, tears dripping down your cheeks.


This ends the update to our original Special Report, which is featured in its entirety below.


Karen Mains, author

One of the stunning stories from Scripture tells about the uninvited woman who crashed a VIP party at the home of an important religious leader. This is a gal whose bad reputation preceded her—a “woman of the city” reports the account in the book of Luke. Some versions even say that she “was a great sinner.”

Humph, thinks the very important dignitary whose party has been so rudely disrupted by this emotional female basket case. If he [Jesus] was a true prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is, for she is a great sinner.

This is a powerful story of male intervention, protection and advocacy, and in this case, it is Jesus who intervenes for a weeping woman, provides protection and clearly illustrates how to advocate for those wounded and longing for forgiveness.

“Simon,” Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?”

Do you see this woman? What a question!

Do you see this woman? This is a question that needs to be asked regarding the astonishing demographic figure that is being forced upon our contemporary discussions regarding the status of women in the world today. Indeed, demographers are telling us that there are as many as 100 million women unaccounted for in the projections made by statisticians whose job it is to analyze and project the populations of the nations.

Simply stated, the devaluation of women and the often societally approved discrimination against them are creating a global crisis. This article examines this reality and seeks to propose that there are attitudes and actions we can all take to decrease and eventually eliminate this outrageous discrepancy. But first, we have to “see the women.”

Women endure daily threats

These village women are widows, and often endure threats and distress simply because of their social status as a “widow”.

What Happened to the Women?

My husband, David Mains, tells the story of being in Asia with Dr. KP Yohannan, the founder and director of GFA World. They were attending a conference with some 300 men in attendance in an open-air pavilion. Dr. K.P. was preaching on how these men treated their wives, saying something that memory recalls as being to the effect of, “You treat them like servants [by saying], ‘Do this; do that. Take care of me.’ You get angry and yell. Some of you even push them around. But you are not freeing them to be the women God created them to be.”

The power of this exhortation and of the Scriptures verifying his instruction manifested itself in a loud groaning that began to rise out of the group of men sitting on wooden pews.

“At first,” David remembers, “I thought it was a thunderstorm. I had never heard anything like it in my life. Then I realized these men were groaning in repentance and remorse.”

broken family healed through radio

Here you see a family that has been transformed through the love of God. This man used to beat his wife and child, but after listening to KP Yohannan’s words through a GFA-supported radio broadcast, they found God’s love and are living happily in their journey with Christ.

The devaluation of women in marriage, which those men repented of many years ago, is merely one symptom of what causes the 100-million-missing-women global crisis. If we choose to “see the women,” to study the plight of women worldwide and to pay attention to their distress, we will quickly conclude that women’s lives are threatened from the womb through widowhood.

Indeed, the whole world needs to be groaning in remorse and repentance when we realize that 100 million women who should be alive according to statisticians’ projections are nowhere to be found.

The reasons for this are varied and tragic. Even the numbers vary somewhat. In a 1990 essay published in The New York Review of Books, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen claimed there were 100 million missing women.10 Through the following decade, Sen continued to expand his exploration and discoveries, which were published in many subsequent academic works.

Though estimates of between 90 and 101 million missing women, as well as the various causes for the phenomenon, have been studied, debated and analyzed by demographers and social scientists in the years since Sen’s original announcement, most agree now to the reality that roughly 100 million women, worldwide, are missing.

This number is determined by what is called the sex ratio—a means of measuring the number of males born in a society against the number of women. Generally, the male-female birth ratio is slightly biased toward the masculine sex. Due to some kind of disequilibrium matrix, nature allows for some 105 male births for every 100 female births, on average.11

These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excessive mortality of women.

Demographers propose that this is because men are at a higher risk of dying of a variety of causes—violence, accidents, injuries, war casualties—and in time, the sex ratio of a given population for any particular age set begins to equalize. Today, however, when what should be a normal equalized sex ratio is measured in many current populations, particularly in developing countries in Asia, as well as in the Middle East and in parts of Africa, results show a divergence from the norm.

The current sex ratio reveals not a ratio that is beginning to become even between the sexes, but an expanding ratio of men to women of 1.06 (1.06 men per 1 woman), which is far higher than in most countries.

Researcher Amartya Sen concludes: “These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excessive mortality of women.”12

Evaluating the Sex-Ratio Disequilibrium

It is here when those of us who care about the state of the world and the suffering and the well-being of the people who inhabit it should begin to groan, loudly and insistently, like a thunderstorm. We need to read the articles that disclose the state of women around the world; we need to do personal research. We need to seek for understanding.

34 million

women and girls are trapped in the sex trade, contributing to the missing women dilemma.

There is now a general consensus as to the reasons why sex ratios are teetering on a wild imbalance in various countries of the world. Sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, inadequate health care and nutrition for female offspring, lack of pregnancy and childbirth education, and the now booming sex-slave trade industry all contribute to the missing women dilemma.

In their comprehensive book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn report, “Far more women and girls are shipped into brothels each year in the early twenty-first century than African slaves were shipped into slave plantations each year in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.”13

This horrendous reality is verified by the Foreign Affairs journal,14 and the above husband-and-wife writing team estimate some 34 million women and girls worldwide are trapped in the sex-slave trade.

This newborn infant lies in an incubator, suffering from sepsis and jaundice , struggling to survive. His mother died giving birth.

This newborn infant from South Sudan lies in an incubator, suffering from sepsis and jaundice and struggling to survive. His mother died giving birth. Photo by Mark Naftalin, UNICEF

Maternal Mortality and Maternal Morbidity

The issue of malnourishment also takes a generational toll. When girls are malnourished—and historically, girls often live on subsistence diets while their brothers receive the family’s available food—they give birth to underweight babies whose bodies are then more susceptible to disease. Malnourished girls become malnourished women, prone to childbirth losses—miscarriages, stillbirths, infant deaths—and multiple pregnancy complications resulting in mortality.

unicef photo of young girl and sister at health center

This young girl from the Democratic Republic of Congo brought her younger sister to a health center to have a malnutrition screening, after being driven from their home and community during a violent conflict between the government and anti-government militia. Photo by Vincent Tremeau, UNICEF

In India, for instance, demographers find that, by and large, the main cause of female deaths is cardiovascular disease—diseases of the heart and blood vessels that can lead to heart attacks or strokes. Medical researchers have discovered a close relationship between low birth weight and eventual cardiovascular diseases at a later age.15

Maternal mortality refers to the number of women who die in childbirth. Some 99 percent of women in the world who die giving birth are from poor countries. This is determined by another ratio—the maternal mortality ratio (MMR), the number of maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. The MMR measures the potential of death per pregnancy. Another ratio measures death probability over a lifetime of multiple pregnancies. The lifetime risk of dying in childbirth is 1,000 times higher in a poor country.16

“This should be an international scandal,” Kristof and WuDunn write.

To sketch out this global crisis, Kristof and WuDunn quote some alarming statistics:

  • The highest maternal mortality risk in the world is in the African country of Niger. There the lifetime risk of death is 1 in 7.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, the lifetime risk of death in childbirth is 1 in 22.
  • India is 1 in 70.17
  • The United States is 1 in 4,800, a high ratio for a developed and wealthy country.
  • In Italy, the lifetime risk is 1 in 26,000.
  • In Ireland, the chance of dying in childbirth is 1 in 46,000.18

Morbidity is different from mortality. Maternal morbidity deals with injuries during childbirth, and they occur even more frequently than maternal mortality. Again, Half the Sky concentrates pages on occurrence of morbidity, particularly fistulas—in this case, rectovaginal fistulas, which are often the result of trauma in childbirth. Here a tear between the vagina and rectum (also caused by rape) is left untreated in places where there is inadequate health care. These women, many now mothers, having successfully delivered an infant, become outcasts in their villages because they cannot control the flow of urine or feces.

“For every woman who dies in childbirth, at least ten suffer significant injuries such as fistulas or serious tearing,” Kristof and WuDunn write. “Unsafe abortions cause the deaths of seventy thousand women annually and cause serious injuries to another 5 million. The economic cost of caring for those 5 million women is estimated to be $750 million annually. And there is evidence that when a woman dies in childbirth, her surviving children are much more likely to die young as well, because they will have no mother caring for them.”19

The lifetime risk of dying in childbirth is 1,000 times higher in a poor country.

All these factors are symptoms of one major toxic cause: female discrimination. Simply stated: Women in a cross section of wide-ranging cultures are not valued. In fact, they are actively abused, neglected and abandoned through countless ingrained cultural practices that deem women as inferior to men and ensure they stay in subsistence-like conditions.

The conglomerate of all these causes contributes to the overall demographic reality of 100 million missing women. To repeat Amartya Sen again: “These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excessive mortality of women.”

The Irony of the Skewed Sex Ratio

The irony of the missing-women demographics—enabled by entrenched cultural attitudes and systemic discrimination against the female sex—is that many places in the world with a skewed sex ratio are now experiencing such high female shortages that there are no longer enough women to mate in marriage with the existing male population. Think about that 1.06:1 sex ratio (again, 1.06 men to every 1 woman), and multiply it by the thousands. Imagine what that means. Imagine the implications.

korean school children

This photo is just one depiction of a once-looming human rights catastrophe. Because of the skewed sex ratio in Asia, many countries are now experiencing such high female shortages that there are no longer enough women to mate in marriage with the existing male population. In 1990, a cultural preference for male children had caused South Korea's sex ratio to be at the world's highest, but after campaigns and restrictions on ultrasounds, the ratio is back to normal.
By amnat30/Shutterstock.com

The Wall Street Journal focused an article on this topic that dealt with South Korea:

“A cultural preference for male children has cost Asia dearly. … Not just a human-rights catastrophe, it is also a looming demographic disaster. With Asian birthrates already plummeting, that means millions of women will never be mothers, and the economic and social impact on some of the world’s largest countries is incalculable.

“For decades, South Korea was Exhibit A in this depressing trend. By 1990, as medical advances made prenatal sex selection routine, the ratio of male-to-female babies soared in South Korea to the world’s highest, at 116.5 males for every 100 females.”20

Projections made by the Population Council, a New York City-based research center, indicate that if trends continue, there will be an increase to 150 million missing women by 2035. The world is just sensing the demographic wave that was set into motion years ago. This means that in China, by 2035 there will be as many as 186 single men for every 100 women. In India, by 2060 the sex ratio could curve even higher: 191 men for every 100 women.21

A cultural preference for male children [is] not just human-rights catastrophe, it is also a looming demographic disaster.

The governments of both countries have established means and laws to correct this extraordinary deviation. Fetal ultrasound imaging has been restricted (at the least, the reporting of the sex of the child while in utero), and legislation aimed at gender equality has been enacted. China even offers financial incentives to couples with daughters and announced it was abandoning its one-child policy. But demographers warn that even if both countries brought their sex ratios to normal, the damage has been done. Hundreds of millions of Asian men in their 50s will still be unmarried in 2070. In India, the result would be around 15 percent.

Can this rampant and damaging sexism be altered? Remember South Korea, once Exhibit A? Now, partly because of the political insistence of a growing body of educated women, it is beginning to reduce its sex ratio through a variety of national policies. By 2005, the ratio had become 110 males for every 100 female babies. Five years later, the ratio became 107, finally normalizing at the natural level of 105. 22

Woman who was beaten by her husband with a cricket bat

Geeta's husband used to come home drunk and beat her with the wooden cricket bat pictured. Violence against women is a major public health problem in Asia and a violation of women’s human rights. The majority of this violence is intimate-partner violence, estimated to be 30 percent worldwide.

Intimate-Partner Violence Against Women

One of the greatest contributors to this missing-women factor is violence against women—both sexual violence and violence by their own intimate partners. According to the World Health Organization, “Violence against women—particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence—is a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights.”23

  • Global estimates indicate that about 1 in 3 women worldwide (35 percent) have been victims of physical and/or sexual violence, sometimes inflicted by their own intimate partners, in their lifetimes.
  • “As many as 38 percent of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.”24
  • “Violence can negatively affect women’s physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health, and may increase the risk of acquiring HIV in some settings.”25
  • “Men are more likely to perpetrate violence if they have low education, a history of child mistreatment, exposure to domestic violence against their mothers, harmful use of alcohol, unequal gender norms including attitudes accepting of violence, and a sense of entitlement over women.”26

A conclusion about the above data is, obviously, that intimate-partner violence is an undeniable contributor to the missing-women dilemma. In case there is any doubt as to what exactly is meant by all this, the United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”27

The Coequal Value Seen in Genesis

The extraordinary message of the Christian Scriptures, beginning with the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis, affirms the value of men and women: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”28

Biblically faithful Christianity has always been confronted by this theological premise: Man and woman are created in the image of God. It’s a huge bump in the road for those who might mistreat the female sector within its following and is a premise worthy of the moans and groans of those who hear a sermon pointing out their misconduct. How we treat one another, in Christendom, is evidence of the reality and depth of our faith.

This young woman Maloti was recently married. Her in laws, disgusted by her being of a lower caste, had kidnapped her from the tea farm she worked on as a day laborer. They hated her so much that they poisoned her. Their murderous attempt failed and Maloti survived but suffered damage to her vocal cords.

This young woman, Maloti, was kidnapped from the tea farm she worked on as a day laborer and recently married to someone of a higher caste. Her in-laws, disgusted by her being of a lower caste, hated her so much that they poisoned her. Their murderous attempt failed and Maloti survived, but suffered damage to her vocal cords.

Do You See This Woman?

Let’s summarize again that story from Luke that began this article, “And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner … brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil.” 29

The important religious leader, a Pharisee named Simon, was appalled by this woman who, uninvited, crashed his dinner party. In his heart he thought Jesus could not possibly be who He said He was, or He would know what kind of woman she was. Simon certainly thought he knew what kind of woman she was—an emotional type, obviously; a town prostitute, probably. A woman of bad manners and of lower class, which was not his type of person, certainly.

Jesus tells a parable about two debtors, one who owed a creditor little and one who owed the same man much. Both of their debts were forgiven. Jesus asks his host, Simon, which one he thinks loved the creditor the most—the one with little debt forgiven or the one with much debt forgiven? The answer is obvious, even to those of us reading the story many years removed from the dinner-party incident. We agree with the Pharisee’s answer: the one who was forgiven much.

At the risk of being redundant, it is here that Christ asks the question that resounds through the centuries, one that should be considered by any hostile intimate partner and any theologian or churchgoer who has a twisted, mysogynized theology: “Simon, do you see this woman?”

by Michelangelo Cerruti

This photo tells a story from the book of Luke: An uninvited woman, seen as a sinner, a woman of lower class who wanted to wash a religious leader’s feet with her own tears. The owner of the house was appalled by her, but Jesus “saw this woman”, intervened and provided protection, illustrating how to advocate for those longing for forgiveness.
Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock.com

Do you see this woman? Christ saw the woman, not her bad reputation, not her past misdeeds, not her wayward lifestyle. He saw her best potential self. He saw her broken heart. He saw the gratefulness she felt that any man could think she was something other than the role the community had assigned to her.

Jesus saw the women. If you want to conduct a study as to Jesus’ attitude toward women in a time when they were considered lower than second class, look through the stories collected in the Gospel of Luke. Here we see a man who loved women, advocated for them, healed them and welcomed them as companions in His earthly ministry.

We, too, need to see the women of the world. We need to turn our energies toward helping countries change and cure the great harms that have contributed to the extraordinary demographic imbalance of some 110 males for every 100 women. Indeed, many developing countries consider elevating women from underclass to an educated class as a means of increasing the capacity of the country to function competitively in a global economy.

little slum girl

This little girl, along with thousands of other children, lives in the slums of Delhi. She—and the children like her—lack access to education, nutritious food and health care facilities, to name the least. They begin working at a very young age picking up trash or working for small workshops to earn wages to provide for themselves.

A Consensual Solidarity of Concern

Let us grieve for these who have suffered such hardships, deprivation, bondage, violence, societal disfavor or low self-esteem brought on by the scornful esteem of the men in one’s social circle. Let us form a solidarity of concern and do what we can to change the capacity of others, either men or women, but for the purposes of this article, particularly women.

In 1980, I went on a sponsored survey trip for Food for the Hungry to write about that organization’s work in the disaster areas of the world. It was an extraordinary global journey and an extraordinary exposure to the needs and crises of humanity worldwide as well. At the start of the trip, on April 1 in Hong Kong, I had time to do a study of Christ’s ministry as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, and I wrote out all the verses to remind myself of how dramatic His healing, teaching and miracle-filled ministry must have been to the masses.

Something about Christ’s response to the needy women who were part of all those crowds touched me deeply, and I wrote:

Lord, I praise You that while You are also God of the individual, You are also God of the masses. What did you have in mind for me to write about these masses of women?

  • Those who with little household aids, nevertheless, keep their houses (huts or tents) clean?
  • Those who demonstrate industry weaving or knitting?
  • Those who work in gardens, hoeing with homemade instruments or digging in the soil with sharpened sticks?
  • Those who run sidewalk cafés—little set-up carts?
  • Those who pour cool drips of the water they have walked miles to gather over the bodies of their sweaty and dirty children?
  • Those who are painstakingly learning English in order to better themselves with foreigners?
  • Those who are raising pigs in piggeries?
  • Those in refugee camps who have nothing profitable to do afternoon after afternoon after afternoon?
  • Those who have willingly offered me their babies because the past is horrendous, their husbands are no longer alive and the future looks hopeless?
  • Those with wholesome, plain faces who volunteer their lives to serve the missionaries who bring some sensibility of promise into nonsensical and unpromising conditions?
  • Those who plant flowers in front of their settlement housing (canvas tents or ramshackle shelters)?

There is something about actually seeing the masses of needy and desperate yet often-courageous women struggling just to survive in the resettlement housing in Hong Kong, in the refugee camps in Thailand (those fleeing the Pol Pot massacres in Cambodia), in the canvas villages with dirt paths, in the milk-and-food lines provided by development organizations, or in the old abandoned ammo depots now housing a population of 20,000.

A Little Girl’s Future Transformed

A beautiful story from GFA World’s archives tells about the day a cook at a GFA-supported Bridge of Hope center noticed an elderly woman begging on the street. The cook was distressed because the older woman had a little girl, filthy and dressed in rags, in tow.

Knowing that adult beggars will often use children as bait to receive monies, then pocket the funds and do nothing for the child, the cook challenged the older woman, “Why are you exploiting this child?”

To the cook’s surprise, the older woman broke into tears and wept.

Daya, age 8 and 15

Daya, pictured at age 8 and age 15. Once among beggars in the street, she is now a thriving teen finding her place in this world and walking in her faith.

She wasn’t a professional beggar at all, but the grandmother of the little girl, Daya, who had been abandoned by both her mother and father. Without income and desperate, the grandmother had begun begging at bus stops, train stations and on the streets. With a change of heart, the cook invited the grandmother to enroll Daya in the Bridge of Hope center, which was in a building wedged between a railway station and a slum, conveniently available to children without a future.

The little girl was enrolled in the center but was so filthy that other parents complained. The Bridge of Hope staff conducted an intensive scrub session to relieve the child of dirt and germs and to replace the same filthy clothes she wore each day with clean clothes. They introduced her to soap and taught her to use it when she washed.

As the report states, “Daya’s future hung in the balance. If rejected from the Bridge of Hope center, she would return to the streets as one of the hundreds of thousands of child beggars in Asia. At some point, she would likely join the 20 to 30 million other boys and girls who are exploited as child laborers.”

The staff was determined to see that Daya thrived in Bridge of Hope, and she grew up to be an educated young woman. However, millions of other children never get that chance.

World day against child labor concept

These are the hands of a child, covered in filth from doing construction work. Thousands of children, just like this one, can’t go to school because they are caught in bonded labor. Some 31 million girls of primary-school age are not in school. Seventeen million of these are expected to never enter school.
By Doidam 10/Shutterstock.com

Child Exploitation

In a fact sheet on girls’ education, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) explains:

  • Some 31 million girls of primary-school age are not in school. Seventeen million of these are expected to never enter school.
  • Some 34 million female adolescents are missing from secondary schools, which often offer vocational skills that are essential for procuring future jobs.
  • Two-thirds of the 774 million illiterate people in the world are female.30

Thousands of these children can’t go to school because they are caught in bonded labor.

“It is doubtful they’ve ever held a toothbrush or a bar of soap; they’ve probably never eaten an ice-cream cone or cradled a doll,” GFA states. “The child laborers of Asia toil in fireworks, carpet and match factories; quarries and coal mines; rice fields, tea plantations and pastures; and even brothels. Because they are exposed to dust, toxic fumes, pesticides and disease, their health is compromised, and their bodies can be crippled from carrying heavy weights.”31

Worse still, these children could be entrapped in prostitution.

Prostitutes in the red light district

These young women are prostitutes in the red-light district; some most likely entrapped since childhood.

According to Reuters, “Of an estimated 20 million commercial prostitutes in India, 16 million women and girls are victims of sex trafficking, according to [data gatherers].” 32

Prostitution is not illegal in India so the chances of victimization are mind-blowing. In addition, many impoverished families sell their daughters to opportunists who promise a better life for their children.

ABC News reports, “Aid organizations estimate that 20 to 65 million Indians have already passed through the hands of human traffickers at one point in their lives. Ninety percent of them remain within India’s national borders, and the majority are female and under the age of 18.”33

One social worker, Palavi, explained, “Human trafficking works because the victims are afraid and cannot communicate. … Many of them have children who live in constant danger of also being sold or sexually abused. They grow up under the beds where their mothers were robbed of their dignity.” 34

When census data is gathered, these women, mothers and little girls are not in their villages, local communities or urban settlements. They are hidden by sex slave traders (but made available to the men who seek them out).

Let me ask again the question Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee, “Do you see this woman (or child, or little girl or teenager)?”


I have a granddaughter named Eliana who is 10 years old. Four mornings a week, I pick up Eliana and her brother, Nehemiah (8), to drive them to school. Their younger sister, Anelise (5), is picked up by the preschool bus. My driving effort is to help out their mother, who was married to our son Jeremy Mains. Our son, her husband and the children’s father, died five years ago at age 42 of blastic mantle cell lymphoma.

Angela, my daughter-in-law, is raising the children by herself while holding a full-time job as the director of a local community-outreach organization. She has just completed her dissertation and received a doctorate in adult education. Nevertheless, even with remarkable mothers, studies show that children raised without fathers are vulnerable. So my husband and I live close, are on call when babysitters fall through and try to do a lot of one-on-ones with our grandchildren.

Though I watch these grandchildren grow with an attentive heart, I am certain my granddaughter Eliana will never worry about entering bonded labor or be forced to go begging on the streets. It is impossible for me, even for the sake of achieving a frightening empathy, to impose through my imagination the horror of the lives of some 20 to 65 million trafficked females on these precious little girls I love.

Children at bridge of hope center look happy

These Bridge of Hope students look happy during class time at GFA’s Bridge of Hope program. Education can protect a girl from exploitation—and redirect her future. This is a primary solution to begin changing the statistics of 100 million missing women.

Education as a Deterrent

Education can protect a girl from exploitation—and redirect her future. An educated girl can read. She can find work. She can get training to become a teacher, a doctor or a policewoman, for instance. She can tutor other children. A social system begins to change slowly, very slowly, one educated girl by one educated girl.

The latest statistics regarding GFA’s supported work with women in 2018 include:

290,753

women received free health care training

8,812

sewing machines distributed as a means to obtain work as a seamstress

61,880

illiterate women learned to read and write

11,000+

women desperate for jobs received vocational training

Educating girls is a primary solution to begin changing the statistics of 100 million missing women. The Global Partnership for Education maintains, “The power of girls’ education on national economic growth is undeniable: a one percentage point increase in female education raises the average gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 percentage points and raises annual GDP growth rates by 0.2 percentage points.” 35

The World Bank stresses that girls’ education goes beyond getting into school. It is also about ensuring they learn and feel safe in school. One research study in Haiti indicated, “One in three Haitian women (ages 15 to 49) has experienced physical and/or sexual violence, and that of women who received money for sex before turning 18 years old, 27 percent reported schools to be the most common location for solicitation.” 36

Through Bridge of Hope, GFA offers child sponsorships for the neediest impoverished children whose families are caught in the cycle of poverty and are unable to provide education for their offspring. The sponsorship amount is $35 per month per child. This educational ministry sees that some 70,000 children (both boys and girls) are given a daily meal, regular medical checkups and training in basic hygiene.

Women in tailoring class

What Can We Do?

What can we—those of us who have hearts that beat with concern about the unbelievable evils of this world—do about the women worldwide who face discrimination and violence? How can anyone make a dent in a problem with such magnified proportionality? How can that horrific statistic—100 million missing women—be conquered, overcome, defeated, reduced or even eliminated?

Well, there are some things we can do, small as they seem, but mighty nevertheless in their possibility:

happy girl from bridge of hope

We can sponsor girls (and boys) so they get educated through programs like GFA’s Bridge of Hope Program. And if $35 a month is too much for you (and it is for some compassionate people), invite your small group, Sunday School class, men’s softball league, neighborhood coffee-klatch or members of your extended family to pool funds.

open bible

Think about this question: Why do more people not see this inequality and neglect, not grieve for the women and girls who have experienced such hardships and take action to be part of the solution? Then read the book of Luke and think about the societal shift that begins with women’s encounters with Jesus.

girl praying

Remind yourself of Christ’s question: “Do you see this woman?” Write it out on a card, and then use it as a bookmark in the books you read or paste it on your bathroom mirror. Write out a prayer, like the one I included in the beginning of this article, but adapt it to this horrific dilemma: Lord, what do You want me to do about the masses of women? And if you are not a praying person, send some discontented energy into the atmosphere any way you feel fit. Just don’t forget.

Let us conclude by going back to Jesus, except now He is not eating at the table of the VIPs. He is bloody, tortured, hanging from a cross and nearing death. The Gospel of John describes the inhumanity of the Roman soldiers and the crowds standing beneath the cross.

“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”37

Concern for the widow. Concern for the women.

“Look at this woman. Do you now see your mother?”

So, let us also be about this work in the world.

Oh, Lord, help us to care for every human with hearts that beat like Your heart beats for them. And help us, please help us, no matter our gender, to see the women.

Learn more about GFA World’s programs to help women

Vocational Training

Vocational classes provide job skills for men and women to break out of the cycle of poverty, equipping them to start or expand businesses.

Learn More

Sewing Machines

Sewing machines bring hope and dignity to people in desperate situations. This gift can help the recipient lift their entire family out of the cycle of poverty.

More About K. P.

Literacy Training

Millions of women in Asia cannot read or write. Literacy programs equip these women with skills that enable them to flourish, gaining knowledge and skills never before possible.

Read More

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