Crossposted at Methodist Federation for Social Action and the General Board of Church and Society's Faith in Action.
Proverbs 31:31: “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.”
The writer of Proverbs 31 writes of an ëschet-chayil, which depending on the particular biblical translation, can be read as a virtuous, noble, excellent, or capable woman. But as I reflect on the ongoing global struggle for women’s dignity, I prefer another translation of ëschet-chayil—a woman of valor. The term valor is often associated with conflict and even war, and describes a person who approaches danger with bravery and courage.
What are the characteristics of a woman of valor, according to Proverbs 31? She is trustworthy, hardworking, charitable, and strong—and she is to be given an equitable share of the fruits of her labor.
I know this woman of valor. I have met her many times. She is the one running a rural health clinic in Kenya, serving a community that otherwise would have no access to health care. She is the one in Nicaragua educating her peers about domestic violence and family planning. She is the one making safe birthing kits for those she will never meet.
As the global community prepares to honor International Women’s Day on March 8, I have been wondering, what ought to be the role of the church in commemorating these women of valor among us? The author of Proverbs 31 gives us some direction. First, we are to give thanks for the courage, bravery, and diligence of women in our own communities and around the world. Second, we are to ensure that all women receive that which they have earned—honor, dignity, and access to resources.
Many people are familiar with the statistic that while women do a majority of the world’s work, they own less than 1% of the world’s land. But that is only one aspect of the gender gap that contributes to women’s undervalued position in their homes, communities, and countries. We must continue to move away from a piecemeal approach to gender equality and begin to look intersectionally at the many injustices women face, impeding their sacred worth as children of God.
We must wake up! Did you know that a young woman in Chad is more likely to die giving birth than she is to receive a secondary education? What does this say about how we value the life of the girl child? The roots of our world’s deepest suffering—violence, HIV/AIDS, poverty, malnutrition—disproportionately impact our sisters in Christ. We are called to be partners with God in creating a more just world for all God’s children, and that means addressing the sins of both our personal and systemic sexism.
As an advocate for maternal health and family planning, my challenge is to recognize that my lens on women’s empowerment is often myopic, and that I must reach out to partners both within and beyond The United Methodist Church who can help me better understand the complexities of not only ensuring women’s survival, but also enhancing their ability to thrive. I have asked myself difficult questions like, what good does it do to build a birth facility if the women of the surrounding communities have no way to get there? Have we really achieved success if a woman has a healthy birth but only two months later dies of malaria? These questions are challenging, and will require a concerted response from the global community, including the church.
On April 3 at 3pm Eastern Time, I invite you to join the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project and United Methodist Women in a conversation that will explore two equally serious but oftentimes siloed issues: domestic violence and maternal mortality. Violence against women is a global pandemic that denies women's their bodily integrity. When a pregnant woman suffers partner violence, she may suffer injury, miscarriage, or even death. I hope you will journey with us as we explore ways for the church to respond to theses issues in a collective, unified way.
Please register for the webinar by April 2nd. This event is open to the public.
Katey Zeh is an advocate and organizer for reproductive justice. She directs the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the General Board of Church and Society, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She lives in Cary, NC with her soon-to-be-husband Matt and their dog Lucy.