June 29, 2021

Six Challenges for the World’s Women

The social forces that silence voices and compromise opportunities.

Guadalupe Alvarado

Note: The General Conference Women’s Ministries Department has identified six critical issues whose impact on women is worldwide, and whose elimination is the focus of their ministry (see https://women.adventist.org/six-challenge-issues).

Women around the world have much in common: Created in God’s image, they may continue His creation through the prospect of motherhood, and extend His nurturing character through the compassionate care they give to husbands, children, and their communities. As both leaders and followers in the community of faith, they know the joy of bonding with other women, and a high spiritual sensitivity that leads them to seek a deep experience with God.

They also face common needs. Whether in rich or poor countries, they suffer common threats to their families that lead to a downward spiral of inequality, suffering, and premature death.

Following Him means being committed to slaying the giants that threaten the stability and well-being of women, their families, and the world’s next generation: giants of illiteracy, poverty, health, lack of training, overwork, and abuse of many kinds.

When Christ walked this earth, His mission was to preach, teach, and heal. He freed entire cities from pain and suffering; He is not only our Savior, but the great example for us, His church today. Following Him means being committed to slaying the giants that threaten the stability and well-being of women, their families, and the world’s next generation: giants of illiteracy, poverty, health, lack of training, overwork, and abuse of many kinds.

ILLITERACY

A vital tool for acquiring knowledge, accomplishing development, and making good use of opportunities is the ability to read and write. Almost 1 billion adults cannot read; however, about three fourths of them are women. Think of it: millions of women cannot read the instructions on a medicine bottle, fill out an employment form, or read the directions for how to use a household cleaner. Neither can they read a Sabbath School lesson to their children, or read the Bible to them.

Illiteracy is associated with low social status, poor health, limited options for economic improvement, and limited educational opportunities. It also increases discrimination, gender disparity, and cultural restrictions, diminishing opportunities to find a better workplace.

Lack of female literacy is also closely associated with increased infant and child mortality.

Illiteracy leaves women trapped in a cycle of poverty, sentencing them to chronic destitution, with few opportunities for a better life.

This reality is not far from the United States. Despite being the largest economy in the world, the U.S. continues to struggle with a staggering literacy problem in which 21 percent of adults are either completely or functionally illiterate. It suggests that the U.S. is significantly behind many countries with smaller economies, including Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, all of the Scandinavian countries, and South Korea.
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By contrast, literacy is a stepping-stone to a more engaged populace and one more educated about important issues. When a woman gains literacy skills, her entire family advances.

POVERTY

Poverty places a disproportionate burden on women, affecting every aspect of their lives.
“They are likely to be the last to eat, the ones least likely to access health care, and routinely trapped in time-consuming, unpaid domestic tasks. They have more limited options to work or build businesses. Adequate education may lie out of reach. Some end up forced into sexual exploitation as part of a basic struggle to survive.”2

Women experience poverty at higher rates than men for a variety of reasons. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, of the 38.1 million people living in poverty in 2018, 56 percent—or 21.4 million—were women.
3 One study found that more than 50 million households struggle to pay for such basic necessities as food, housing, and health care—despite only 16 million of them being officially classified as “in poverty.”4 Women of nearly all races and ethnicities face higher rates of poverty than their male counterparts. Unmarried mothers have higher rates of poverty than married women, with or without children. Almost one in four unmarried mothers with children live in poverty.

Some reasons women experience higher rates of poverty are:

On average, women earn less than men. The wage gaps are wider for most women of color.  Women are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs because of pervasive gender roles, expectations that women’s work is low-skilled, and the systemic undervaluing of women’s labor. Conversely, women are underrepresented in high-wage occupations such as engineers, in part because of the professions’ demand for long hours in the office and lack of flexibility for caregiving.

Domestic violence can worsen women’s economic standing in the United States, causing them to lose an average of 8 million days of paid work per year.
5 A study published in 2016 found that in some places more than half of all women experiencing homelessness reported that domestic violence was the immediate cause.

Under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, disparity has grown, as women spend three times more in unpaid care and domestic work, limiting their access to paid work; a high contrast and comparison, as 94 percent of men versus only 64 percent of women are in the labor force. This disparity limits women’s ability to support themselves and their families, especially for female-headed households.6

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Balancing the societal expectations for maintaining an intact and healthy family while achieving in a highly competitive work environment results in long days and limited rest and recreation.

THREATS TO HEALTH

Women face many threats to health, such as social inequalities, economic deprivation, poor nutrition, inadequate housing, disability-related discrimination, and political instability.

Fifty percent of all poor women and two thirds of pregnant poor women in less-developed countries are anemic. Maternal mortality remains the leading cause of death among women globally. A half million women die each year from childbearing-related complications. For every one that dies, 20 are physically damaged in the process of giving life. Maternal mortality has been called the “silent epidemic.” This problem is not restricted to poor countries. The U.S. has the highest rate of maternal mortality among 11 developed countries because of complications from pregnancy or childbirth; high rates of cesarean sections, lack of prenatal care, and increased rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease may be contributing factors to this high maternal mortality rate.
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It is important to pay attention to women’s health, and offer programs and meaningful seminars considering their most important health issues, such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, autoimmune disease, depression, anxiety, urinary tract conditions, and heart disease, which cause one in every four deaths among women.
8 “Gospel workers should be able also to give instruction in the principles of healthful living. There is sickness everywhere, and most of it might be prevented by attention to the laws of health.”9

Today, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, additional health threats have affected women. More women than men have been infected, since many of them are frontline health workers, especially nurses, midwives, and community health workers, as well as cleaners, and laundry and catering staff. For instance, in Spain 72 percent of female health workers were infected, versus 28 percent of males. In Italy 66 percent of female health workers were infected, and only 34 percent of males. Lack of personal protective equipment has often left more women exposed.
10 Poor health impairs all aspects of a woman’s life and undermines her ability to be a fully productive participant in God’s work.

LACK OF TRAINING

Despite societal development, equality advancements, and improved working rights, opportunities for women to lead and progress are still limited. Her church, her society, just as much as each woman, bears the moral obligation and spiritual duty to recognize and affirm her individual needs and gifts (Eph. 4:7-16). To be on the cutting edge, she needs to be involved in continuing education and training. Women who would lead must keep current on new and relevant ways of ministering effectively to others. It is important that women, especially leaders, be involved in mentoring and serving not only as mentors but also as mentees. Thus individuals are not only receiving but also sharing. We need Christ’s attentiveness to the potential for development all around us: “Christ discerned the possibilities in every human being. He was not turned aside by an unpromising exterior or by unfavorable surroundings. . . . The same personal interest, the same attention to individual development, are needed in educational work today.”
11 And the more we receive, the more we can share.

OVERLOAD

Women worldwide experience the challenge of excessive workload. This impacts their physical, emotional, spiritual, social, relational, and economic well-being.

In the affluent world, the long working day also affects women, with heavy expectations for job performance while maintaining family integrity. Balancing the societal expectations for maintaining an intact and healthy family while achieving in a highly competitive work environment results in long days and limited rest and recreation. Literature on women’s health identifies chronic fatigue syndrome as a growing phenomenon among women in both poor and affluent countries.

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Every human being is worthy. No one must suffer any form of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or family violence.

The crisis of COVID-19 has contributed to overloading women. According to a study by Steelcase, women are most likely to have suboptimal conditions for working from home. And the September McKinsey study shows more women than men reporting exhaustion, burnout, and pressure to work more.
12 One wonders how many are aware of this warning? “If the mother is deprived of the care and comforts she should have, if she is allowed to exhaust her strength through overwork or through anxiety and gloom, her children will be robbed of the vital force and of the mental elasticity and cheerful buoyancy they should inherit.”13

Every woman should have opportunity to spend time in enriching her spiritual life through Bible study, prayer, and devotional time with God, as well as developing all spheres of their life. A good work-life balance enhances the wholistic well-being of women and enables them to be better mothers and wives.

ABUSE

Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, and economic and emotional/psychological abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence varies dramatically. Abuse affects more than one third of all women globally.  On a typical day in the U.S. domestic violence hotlines nationwide receive more than 19,000 calls.
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Since the outbreak of COVID-19, however, domestic violence against women and girls has intensified. France reported an increase of 30 percent since the lockdown on March 17, 2020. In Cyprus and Singapore help lines have registered an increase in calls of 30 percent and 33 percent, respectively. Increasing cases of domestic violence and demand for emergency shelter have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, and the U.S.
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Every human being is worthy. No one must suffer any form of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or family violence. It is necessary to speak, teach, and give support. Silence perpetuates abuse. Joining the campaign for enditnow, uniting voices with “Adventists Say No to Violence,” is taking sides with God against him who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. It is uniting with the God of life and the daughters who have worked with Him to bear life to us all.


  1. https://worldliteracyfoundation.org/adult-literacy-america/
  2. United Nations, Entity for Gender Equality, and the Empowerment of Women (Beijing: 2015).
  3. Based on official poverty measure, using 2019 Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. See Steven Ruggles et al., Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, 2019 Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement (Minneapolis: Minnesota Population Center, 2020), available at https://doi.org/10.18128/D010.V10.0.
  4. United Way ALICE Project, “51 Million U.S. Households Can’t Afford Basics,” PR Newswire, press release, May 17, 2018, available at https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/51-million-us-households-cant-afford-basics-300650535.html.
  5. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/08/03/488536/basic-facts-women-poverty/#fn-488536-38
  6. Christopher Ingraham, “Coronavirus Recession Could Plunge Tens of Millions Into Poverty, New Report Warns,” Washington Post, Apr. 20, 2020, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/20/coronavirus-recession-could-plunge-tens-millions-into-poverty-new-report-warns/; Zachary Parolin, Megan A. Curran, and Christopher Wimer, “The CARES Act and Poverty in the COVID-19 Crisis,” Poverty and Social Policy Brief 4, no. 8 (2020), available at https://www.povertycenter.columbia.edu/news-internal/coronavirus-cares-act-forecasting-poverty-estimates.
  7. https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2018/dec/womens-health-us-compared-ten-other-countries
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_women_heart.htm
  9. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 146.
  10. WHO, “Gender Equity in the Health Workforce: Analysis of 104 Countries” (2019), https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/311314/ WHO-HIS-HWF-Gender-WP1-2019.1-eng.pdf?ua=1.
  11. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 232.
  12. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tracybrower/2021/04/18/women-and-the-pandemic-serious-damage-to-work-health-and-home-demands-response/
  13. E. G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 375.
  14. “National Network to End Domestic Violence” (2020), 14th annual domestic violence counts report, retrieved from NNEDV.org/DVCounts.
  15. United Nations Development Program, “Gender-based Violence and COVID -19.”

Family Therapist Guadalupe Alvarado’s service to the Adventist Church includes nine years in Central Asia as Women’s Ministries director, Southern Union Mission, Euro-Asia Division.

Guadalupe Alvarado
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