By Jenny Eaton Dyer
At the turn of the millennium, the global HIV/AIDS emergency captured the attention of people in new, life-changing ways. Among these concerned citizens, a large number of Christian artists emerged, united in galvanizing evangelical Christians to rethink their care and concern for those who were suffering from HIV/AIDS, largely in Africa. There, HIV was hollowing out societies across the continent, leaving children stranded as orphans, with seemingly no end in sight. Over 6,500 people were dying daily.
Many in the Christian faith community took the lead in sharing the story of HIV/AIDS in Africa: Franklin Graham, Bono, and Bill Frist, to name a few. Academic, non-profit, religious, and activist communities took a stand, and our government was empowered to fight the pandemic. Today, because of strong leadership, over 14 million people who suffer with HIV and AIDS now have access to anti-retro viral medications around the world with the legislation passed during the Bush Administration: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund.
This is a great story. But history might have been different if artists had not chosen to play a role. Bono, Ashley Judd, Michael W. Smith, and other brilliant artists, actors, and writers stepped forward to lend their currency of fame and fresh perspective and language to the enormity of a global health issue for disease and extreme poverty. Their ability to translate the need to the larger population created a key moment for change.
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In 2015, Hope Through Healing Hands pulled together a collection of writers and artists to focus on the issues of maternal, newborn, and child health in developing nations to educate and activate Americans to participate in saving lives. And we compiled a book to be released later this month: The Mother & Child Project: Raising Our Voices for Health and Hope (2015), echoing its sibling, The aWAKE Project: Uniting against the African AIDS Crisis (2002), is a clarion call from the academic, political, non-profit, and artist communities to join with one voice for women’s and children’s health around the world.
At the heart of the book are the voices of the women themselves. Mihret Gebrehiwot writes from Ethiopia about how spacing her children has allowed her to go back to work, and Beryl writes from Kenya about how education on spacing her children has allowed her baby to survive and thrive. Kiren writes from India about her opportunity to finish college, and Dorine writes from Burundi about how family planning combats extreme poverty.
These women all have one thing in common: healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies has allowed them to have healthier, happier lives. And in some cases, it has saved their lives. More than 289,000 women die every year because of complications from pregnancy or childbirth, with 85 percent of maternal deaths occurring in Africa and South Asia. We can change this; more than 80 percent of these deaths are preventable. Skilled care during labor, delivery, and up to 48 hours postpartum make lifesaving differences. If a woman in these regions can time her first pregnancy between the ages of 20 and 24, she is 10 times more likely to survive pregnancy and childbirth. And if she can space her pregnancies just three years apart, her baby is twice as likely to survive the newborn stage.
When Hope Through Healing Hands talks about healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies — or voluntary family planning — in the international context, we mean enabling women and couples to determine the number of pregnancies and their timing, and equipping women to use voluntary methods for preventing pregnancy, not including abortion, that are harmonious with their values and beliefs. Healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies is also central to achieving other global health goals, such as combating hunger and improving the status of women and girls. Family planning is a key, often hidden engine for additional global health achievements.
The Mother & Child Project offers a Discussion Guide to help readers work through the questions that these statistics and values will naturally raise. The guide includes an appendix of ways that you can get involved: philanthropy, awareness, and advocacy. Please consider using one meeting with a book club or fellowship group, a morning coffee with friends, or a blog post to share the good information this guide has to offer.
The role of the artist in society is unique. Unlike bankers, teachers, police officers, senators, doctors, or professors, artists stand at the margins of society and write poetry and prose rife with metaphor and images as a kind of prophetic voice, hopefully with a vision of truth and love. This vision can empower community, uplifting the vulnerable, and provide a newfound hope for a better life for all. The artist has the power to bend language to her will to get “between the lines” of poetry to allow what the Bible calls “true religion” to emerge. With this perspective, there is beauty, clarity, and pure advocacy.
We need more artistic voices — bards, musicians, poets, and novelists standing at the margins to share the stories of some of the world’s most vulnerable: mothers and children. As a community of writers, readers, prophets, and activists for justice, we ask you to join us and this emerging chorus of voices to discuss and debate how you and your community can get involved with saving the lives of mothers and children around the world. Your voice can make a difference. Your perspective can make a difference. Keep writing.
Jenny Eaton Dyer, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Hope Through Healing Hands, a Nashville-based global health organization. There, she leads the Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide. She also teaches Global Health Politics and Policy as a Lecturer in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Dyer formerly served as the National Faith Outreach Director for the DATA Foundation and The ONE Campaign, Bono’s organization, from 2003-2008. She lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with her husband, John, and two boys, Rhys (7) and Oliver (4).