The Critical Role of Mothers

By Sharon Slater, President of Family Watch International

I would like to express my gratitude to the government of Nigeria and the Peace Federation for inviting me to speak on women as mothers.  To set the stage I would first like to show a video clip.

The role of mothers is so vital to the stability and survival of nations that one of the founding documents of the United Nations—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.”

The Beijing Platform for Action paragraph 29 further states, “Women make a great contribution to the welfare of the family . . .  which is still not recognized or considered in its full importance. The social significance of maternity, motherhood and the role of parents in the family and in the upbringing of children should be acknowledged.”

This is an area that I believe has not been given due attention. 

Why did all the UN member states participating in Beijing feel it was important to recognize the role of mothers in the first place?  It is because they knew that if women as a whole abdicate their role as mothers, there will be no development, there will be no sustainability, and there will be no social security systems, because there will be no workers to fuel economies.

The women’s rights movement since Beijing has opened many important and much-needed opportunities for women.  And much work still needs to be done in many parts of the world.  But in women’s search for gender equality, in some cases, the pendulum has swung too far.  When the quest for women’s rights begins to devalue the role of mothers and contributes to family breakdown, not only do men and children lose, but women and girls lose too.

An extensive review of research was done in the U.S. that examines outcomes for men, women and children according to family structure such as married, single, divorced or cohabitating households.  This research overwhelmingly shows that men, women and children generally do best, according to any and all ways one can measure success (e.g., happiness, health, wealth, education, etc.) when they reside in an intact mother/father family.

Any deviation from the married mother/father family structure, the data show, can lead to such things as poverty, crime, violence, substance abuse, disease and other problems that world governments must spend billions of dollars trying to repair.

The research shows that women who live outside of a married family structure experience more violence, abuse, poverty and a myriad of negative outcomes.  In other words, women have better outcomes when they are married and have families.

From a purely economic perspective, there are enormous tangible costs to society and the state that emanate from family breakdown.  If we were able to calculate the costs to each UN member state emanating from family breakdown the cost would be astronomical.

So it makes sense economically for governments to enact policies that strengthen the family. And the mother is the glue that keeps the family together—she is the heart and the anchor of the family, so it just makes sense for governments to respect, promote and protect the critical role of mothers.  Indeed, all of us here in this room owe our very existence to our mothers.

When I talk about the family, I want to be clear.  I am referring to a family where husbands and wives respect each other and support each other in their respective roles.  However, we fully recognize that due to a variety of circumstances, millions of women are fighting to raise their families as single mothers, and their families too need our respect, attention and support.  And we cannot forget the critical role of the extended family and women in their important roles as aunts and grandmothers caring for children in their family network.

Further, if we are to value the role of mothers, we certainly want to keep mothers alive and help them deliver healthy babies, yet overall, the world has failed miserably to decrease maternal mortality rates.  Billions of dollars have been spent on family planning with the idea that if we limit the number of pregnancies, then fewer women will die.  But the reality is that in countries where enormous amounts of money have been spent on family planning, maternal mortality rates have not decreased, and in some cases, they have increased.

The developed world knows how to save the lives of pregnant women, and this is through basic and emergency obstetric care.  We know this saves lives, so this should be the focus.

It seems that somewhere along the way the women’s movement began to reject motherhood and the family, and rather than help women plan to have families, we have helped them plan their families out of existence, and this has all been done under the banner of women’s rights.  The ironic thing is that where these plans have met with some success, the research shows it has been the women that have suffered the most.

True empowerment of women comes not when women deny their nature and try to become like men, but when they embrace their nature and do that which a man can never do—create life and nurture the life they create.

And we can’t forget the role of women as mothers of the world—and by mothers of the world I am referring to our innate nature as women, whether we have borne children or not, to be mothers—to reach out to the children who do not have mothers. 

A mother’s love can be more important to a child’s future than an education or even clothes or regular meals.  Colleen Down drives this point home in her book, It Takes a Mother to Raise a Village, by recounting a lesson Mother Teresa learned:

Mother Teresa, a great advocate for mothers, tells the story of a boy whom the sisters found on the streets of Calcutta.  He was living with his mother in a box.  The sisters took the boy back to the orphanage, bathed him, fed him, and gave him a clean bed to sleep in.  The next day he disappeared. They found him back in the box with his mother.  Once again they took him back to the orphanage and once again he ran away.  Mother Teresa said she learned a very important lesson that day.  A mother, even a mother in a cardboard box, was more important than the physical comforts that the sisters could provide.1

While visiting orphanages in Africa, I witnessed firsthand the differences between children who had experienced the love of their mother and those who had not.  Regardless of why the children were in the orphanage, the impact of being institutionalized was painfully evident.  The clothing and toys we brought largely were ignored at first because what the children really wanted most of all was to be held. Each of us who made those trips wished we had 10 arms and five laps to hold them all.  Then there were the children with the blank stares.  They didn’t seek love because they didn’t know what it was. These are the children I can’t get out of my mind.

UNICEF estimates that currently there are more than 150 million orphans throughout the world growing up without the love of a mother—and this number is rapidly increasing.  It is mind-boggling to think of the individual and societal ramifications of more than 150 million motherless children.

I would now like to show you a clip of three such children from Mozambique

These are now my children, as we adopted them a year ago last December, and I am proud to tell you that while here at CSW, I just learned the oldest, Luis, was accepted to an American University.  These children are thriving in our family because that is what every child needs—a mother and a father wherever possible.

The poet William Ross said, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”  Mothers, keep rocking.  Your mark will be felt for generations.  Let’s work to enthrone motherhood at the center of our national priorities and esteem mothering as the greatest contribution a woman can make in society.

1Down, C. (2001). It Takes a Mother to Raise a Village. Draper: Lightwave Publications.