Challenging conditions surrounding Jesus’ birth parallel the challenges facing single mothers in developing countries today.
In the Christmas readings, we hear of an unmarried woman becoming pregnant with a son who will be a light in a land of gloom.
The stories tell us that the child was born in a world of danger, inequality, dehumanizing poverty and a repressive imperial system.
I would like to focus on the woman: a pregnant, unmarried teenager, in one of the poorest outposts in human history. Normally, in such conditions the woman would die in childbirth and her child would probably die before the age of 5, most likely in the first year after birth. For some reason God chose to enter the human race in this context, not unlike the current reality in some places across the globe.
It is estimated that there are 650 million women in the world today who were married before the age of 18 and that 15 million adolescent girls have been sexually abused. The maternal mortality rate had been going down since 2000, but it is feared that the COVID-19 pandemic has reversed that progress.
Can the divine be manifested in such a situation? A teenage girl getting pregnant suffers not only from a physical standpoint, but she would also be the butt of disparaging whisperings and comments. And often the children of single mothers suffer stigma in relationships with other children.
There are, however, inspiring examples of the divine being manifested in unexpected places, such as in a poor neighborhood in Kenya, where I served as a missioner. In a factory town near Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, a group of single women, including single mothers, meets regularly. They find ways to give mutual moral and spiritual support, and take steps to raise their children to be credits to their families, communities and nation.
While these women do not have very much money, at least they do not live in a slum, and so they can actually dream of a better future. The women eagerly seek advice on how to improve their situations and, hopefully, transform society.
So, can good things come from poor, single mothers in a developing country?
Many organizations work to advance the status of women in society, including the United Nations, through its entity known as U.N. Women; and the Catholic Church, through diocesan departments of women’s affairs. These organizations assist women through job training; advocating for universal healthcare, paid maternity leave and flexible hours of employment; and promoting female entrepreneurship and greater female presence in governmental positions.
Today we recall that a woman in a poor, obscure country gave birth 2,000 years ago to our universal Savior. So too can women living in similar conditions today contribute to their communities in ways that are essential for making our world a true human family, living at peace with one another.
Featured image: Amid the challenges of poverty, a young mother in Mombasa, Kenya, reflects God’s love manifested in unexpected places. (Sean Sprague/Kenya)