The origins of Mother’s Day dates back to ancient Greek and Roman traditions. In 16th century England, on “Mothering Sundays” you would visit your mother and bake a cake for her. In the United States of America, Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday of May, and you can thank Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia for it.
Anna campaigned hard for a national day to honour all mothers, following the death of her own mother and activist Ann Maria Jarvis in 1905. “Mother Jarvis” was a community organizer who started “Mother’s Work Groups” in her home state West Virginia, which brought together mothers working to improve public health and food safety in their communities. Before the flower industry and retail advertising took note of the day, Mother’s Day in the U.S. celebrated the labour and activism of mothers.
Today, we want to thank mothers everywhere, in all shapes and forms, for the immeasurable contributions that they make every day. Here are just five things you can thank your mom for, today and every day.
Carrying, birthing and nurturing babies is no small feat. But in the 21st century, motherhood can still sometimes be a death sentence.
Every day, 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Skilled care before, during and after childbirth can literally make the difference between life and death for mothers and newborn babies.
Liberia is a case in point. With 1,072 maternal deaths for every 100,000 births, Liberia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. At the Bodowhea Clinic in Liberia’s River Cess County, midwife Lorina Karway pointed to the dismal lack of infrastructure as a major roadblock to quality maternal health care. Last month, Karway helped in delivering 17 babies at the clinic, which caters to over 6,000 residents of the Morweh District of River Cess County.
“A few of those women arrived at the clinic with complications, and they had to be transferred to the St. Francis Hospital in Cestos City–102 kilometers away from Bodowhea [because they have better facilities],” she said.
Every night, the Bodowhea Clinic used to lie in darkness. The nurses and other health workers on duty improvised by using light from their cellphones or asked the patients to purchase gasoline for the clinic’s generator.
“It’s really challenging to assist with a delivery using my phone’s light, because I can’t see clearly. I have to hold the phone in my mouth while working. Doing [medical] procedures at night is almost impossible,” explains Karway.
A simple intervention by six UN agencies, including UN Women, along with the Liberian Government has now installed solar lighting systems in 26 health centres and in five maternal waiting rooms in rural Liberia, including the Bodowhea Clinic. The initiative has also trained health workers and clinic staff in on how to operate and maintain the solar systems. The solar lighting system is built to work under severe weather conditions and with proper maintenance, can last up to fifteen years.
“Today, our patients do not have to worry about money to buy gasoline, and for us as health workers, having light means that we are able to care for our patients better,” says Karway, smiling.
While 99 per cent of maternal deaths happen in developing countries, some developed countries are not faring as well as you would think. In the U.S. for example, pregnancy-related deaths are rising and as many as 700 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes every year.
Mothers all over the world go to great lengths to make sure that their children get an education, as it’s key to ending the cycle of poverty and opening up equal opportunities for girls and boys.
UN Women works with mothers like Dorothee Mbogo from Cameroon.
Everything that Dorothee does is for her daughter, who goes to high school in Yaoundé, the capital city, while Dorothee lives in the town of Batchenga, where she manages a small “call box” business — a small, mobile stand where she operates a pay phone and sells cigarettes, candies and snacks. Her day starts at 5 a.m., and by 7 a.m. she is in the market with her call box. “Early mornings and late evenings are the busiest times in the market. Sometimes, I am here until 10 p.m.”
Dorothee works seven days a week. Like most women in the area, she is also a farmer and grows cassava and watermelon in less than two hectares of land. She goes to work on the farm three days a week, and those days she works all day in the farm and comes back to open her call box business in the evening. It’s hard life, but Dorothee is proud of her accomplishments. She is making some profit, and she is sending her daughter to school.
“I didn’t go to school because there were no means,” says Dorothee. “I work very hard to make sure my daughter gets everything that I didn’t…I want her to study as much as she wants, get the highest possible level of education, and after that, she will have a good job.”
Taking on the motherhood penalty.
Taking time out to care for children slows down women’s career progression.
Worldwide, women make 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. The result is a lifetime of income inequality between men and women. As women become mothers, the income and opportunity gaps widen between men and women.
“The world of work as we know it, is still generally structured around the male “breadwinner” model, with long and rigid working hour arrangements. As women become mothers, they bear the motherhood penalty,” says Chidi King, Director of the Equality Department of the International Trade Union Confederation. “In order to balance family responsibilities and paid work, women accept part-time, casual or underpaid jobs, or work in the informal economy.”
During pregnancy, in too many parts of the world, including developed economies, women still face discrimination in the workplace. They may be undervalued, dismissed or demoted when they rejoin the workforce after giving birth and caring for their children.
But caring for children, cooking, cleaning and other such unpaid care work that keep households and economies running, routinely falls on women’s shoulders. The data shows that women carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid care work than men. However, this work is neither valued, nor counted.
“In theory, this kind of work should be counted as part of GDP,” explains UN Women’s policy expert, Shahra Razavi. In a developed economy like Argentina, women’s unpaid care work amounts to 7 per cent of the GDP, whereas in a less developed country like Tanzania, it accounts for 63 per cent of the GDP, according to feminist economists.
By taking on the lion’s share of unpaid care work, and especially child care, mothers around the world miss out on full time paid work with decent wages, benefits and pension, as well as leisure time.
Moms make some of the best food, but they do so much more than that.
Women across cultures — and mothers, in particular — are the gatekeepers of food and nutritional security in households and communities. They are in charge of maintaining the availability, access, utilization of food, as well as managing food supplies in times of economic hardships (FAO). And since household and care work is highly feminized, growing, preparing and serving food becomes mom’s job in many societies.
At age 36, Carlotta Sam Pac already has seven children to feed. She lives in Puente Viejo, a small indigenous community in the Polochic valley of Guatemala. There are no paved roads in Puente Viejo, the community relies on wooden canoes to transport goods and access services. In the rainy season, floods are a mainstay, and with the changing climate and the advent of hydro-electric projects, they are becoming more frequent and devastating.
For subsistence farmers like Carlotta and the women in her community, the floods have dire consequences on food security. Since joining a joint UN project, Carlotta and her group have learned different skills to diversify their incomes. They are making and marketing organic shampoo using the ingredients readily available in their farms and gardens; they have also learned how to manage their income and savings. The shampoo business now provides additional income and savings that the women can tap into when in need.
With increased savings and a diversified income strategy, there’s more food security in the community. The women don’t have to sell as much crops as they did before and can keep more for household consumption.
“We grow our food and it’s the best food that we can consume,” said Angelina Tut, another member of community. “See this honey — we got it from our bees — taste it with this bread, we baked it ourselves.”
Carlotta Sam Pac nods and spreads the honey generously on a loaf of bread and adds, “I would rather have my children eat what I produce than sell the produce.”
“Our husbands now understand that we can also be managers of our own money. With our money, we can help our household economy. They know we are now aware of our economic rights and they don’t mistreat us anymore.”
The rains will come in a few months, and the rivers will swell and spill over again. But The women of Puente Viejo are more prepared. Their bags are packed with some necessities, their savings and accounting books are in a box. For now, they are happy and enjoying the fruits of their labour. They have plenty of crops to feed themselves and their families, and they have saved more money than ever before.
Fighting for your rights
Many mothers and sisters have fought long and hard, so that we have the rights and freedoms that we do now.
Women’s and girls’ rights may be enshrined in our Constitutions, laws, and international agreements, but securing them, keeping them, and expanding them remains a struggle across generations of women.
More girls go to school today than ever before, and more women are working, thanks to the mothers and sisters who marched on the streets, lobbied governments and drafted laws. New Zealand was the first self-governing country to grant national voting rights to women in 1893, and that stemmed from the activism of another mother, and its most celebrated suffragist, Kate Sheppard.
Timeline: Women's Footprint in History
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Much more recently, when 12-year-old Svetlana* was raped in rural Moldova, the traditional rules of her Roma community said that no other Roma man can marry her. The Roma Tribunal sentenced the perpetrator to either marry her or pay a sum of money to her family for having stolen her virginity.
But Svetlana’s mother stepped in.
“My girl is not for sale,” Nona* said. “But neither could we have her marry at 12. What about her childhood, her dreams? What was the chance that such a marriage would last? Our decision took the community by surprise, but we knew that what she needed most was for us to stand by her and let her stay with her family, surrounded by our love.”
Svetlana returned to school, with her mother’s and family’s support.
Irinea Buendía from Mexico couldn’t save her daughter.
Irinea remembers the last day she saw her daughter, Mariana Lima, as if it was just yesterday. Her daughter had decided to leave her abusive husband. ‘I will file a complaint…I know they will not touch him. He has always said that I cannot do anything to him, as he is a policeman; but I want to set a legal precedent.” Mariana had said. “I will be back at three, and have lunch with you, mom”.
Mariana never made it to lunch.
Irinea lost her daughter to femicide/feminicide — gender-based killings of women. That day, Irinea’s fight for justice started, and it shaped justice for many mothers and daughters in Mexico.
“For years I have suffered not only the murder and loss of my daughter…the ordeal of dealing with the authorities and the judicial system only increased my pain because of the impunity and the corruption in these institutions,” shared Irinea.
Thanks to her advocacy and commitment to justice, Mexico’s Supreme Court issued a historic order in favour of Irinea, stating that the absence of a gender-sensitive approach had led to human rights violations of the victim — both Mariana Lima, the deceased, and her surviving mother. Eventually, Mariana’s husband and killer was arrested, and the case set a precedence for femicide investigations.
There are many more like Irinea and Nona. Need more inspiration, see Five activist moms who inspire us:
Happy Mother’s Day!
Note: *Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women