Next Tuesday (March 8th) will be International Women’s Day, which is celebrated around the world. This year will see the centenary celebration of this significant day. IWD is an official holiday in many countries (sadly not the Czech Republic), where tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives or girlfriends with flowers and small gifts. The focus of IWD has varied and still does vary across location and over time. Common themes include anti-war movements, coordination of gender equality and the development of women’s rights. This year’s theme is “Equal access to education, training, science and technology: The Pathway to decent work for women“. I was asked recently to write an article for a Prague women’s group about IWD. I think I was nominated on the basis that I am one of the few women from the group that actually has a job and so automatically qualified. I tried to write something lovely and inspiring about sisterhood and female mentors but in the end it was just more straightforward to have a bit of a rant…Enjoy.
IWD celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future, and has been observed since the early 1900’s (around the time of the Suffragette movement). In 1908, over 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. In 1911, IWD was observed for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Two years later, Russian women observed their first IWD. In 1914 more women across Europe held rallies to campaign against the war and to express women’s solidarity across international boundaries and in spite of hostility.
The movement gained such global support that 1975 was designated as “International Women’s Year” by the United Nations. The UN adopted as its theme Helen Reddy’s song “I am woman“. Shamefully, I must admit I had not heard this song until I watched Sex and the City 2. I am not convinced that SATC 2 has much in common with the UN’s initial ideals, or the intention of IWD in the current day. Also, just so that we are clear, SATC2 was one of the most appallingly bad, offensive and misguided films ever made. I judge SJP and Kim Catrall for going along with it, and judge myself for watching it….twice.
Some people I spoke to when I wrote my original article were curious about the role of IWD in the world in the current day. I attended an all girls’ school in England with a fiercely feminist headmistress with a penchant for wide-shouldered pastel-coloured suits who urged her girls to “smash the glass ceiling” of opportunities for women. During my time at university and at work, however, it has been clear that many women and men of my generation feel that the necessary battles have already been won. Women are able, and expected, to work across a wide range of professions. We have greater equality in legislative rights than ever before, and there are an increased number of impressive female role models. We have female astronauts, prime ministers and Lady Gaga. Women are welcomed into university, the work-place and have real choices. What is there left to fight for?
Despite the glossy cover of women’s emancipation, the unfortunate fact remains that inequality and a lack of opportunity is still a reality. Globally (including in the “developed” world), women face a pay and promotion gap when compared to their male peers and are underrepresented in business, politics, science and technology.
A Google search on “successful Czech women” produced a list of supermodels but was notably lacking in businesswomen, politicians or academics. Stats show that in the fields of education, health and personal safety, women lag far behind men.
Even where the theory supposes equality, all too often “backward” attitudes rear their heads. My previous employer ran “diversity forums” aimed at women. Whilst this had no patronizing intention, the focus is all wrong. What exactly is “diverse” about the gender making up over half the world’s population (“over half” because, as we know, women live longer to compensate for the child-birth-snake-garden-of-Eden stuff)?
I left school thinking that I could do or be anything that I wanted. It never occurred to me that the world of work in particular might still be weighted in favor of men, or that it would be harder to succeed in one’s chosen career, purely based on one’s sex. Imagine my surprise then, when a former (male) manager suggested that the “only” thing women should do once they become mothers is leave their jobs and stay at home. This man, my manager and supposed mentor, believes that women who work generally breed “unhappy and unruly” children. It is, in my opinion, completely unacceptable that my employer should have voiced this opinion in the work-place, and also rather disheartening that he holds this view at all. I am fiercely proud that my own mother worked full or part-time throughout my and my sister’s childhoods and of what she achieved professionally. Neither me nor my sister have exactly ended up as delinquents.
Of course this is a choice personal to every family, and it might be what some women really do want and good for them. The mere fact that we have that choice should be celebrated, however. So many women do not.
In some locations the problem remains far greater than a lazy debate of whether mothers should or should not work. In South Africa 20% of women taking part in an academic research project reported a lifetime prevalence of sexual violence by an intimate partner. The same project showed that a third of pregnant teenagers reported having experienced forced sex or rape as their initial sexual experience. Whilst women’s equal rights to access, own and control land, adequate housing and property are firmly recognized under international law, at a national level the persistence of discriminatory laws still exists. Local laws, policies, patriarchal customs and traditions in some countries still block women’s rights. In a number of countries including Iran, Kenya, Lesotho, Zambia and Zimbabwe, women still experience customary discrimination in personal law matters such as inheritance. An inability to inherit or hold property leaves many women (often HIV widows) and their children, vulnerable. The UN’s Millennium Campaign revealed that 70% of the world’s poor are women.
More information on IWD and events in the Czech Republic are available online at http://internationalwomensday.org/czech-republic. Take part this year and remember your sisters who are less fortunate than you. Do not take your own freedoms, choices and equality for granted – women gave their lives for them and others still do not enjoy these basic rights. Organizations such as Amnesty International, Action Aid and the United Nations support women’s rights across the globe and are successful campaigning organizations with a global reach. Supporting their initiatives makes a real difference to real women. Why don’t you explore their programmes on March 8th this year?
Smash the glass ceiling on behalf of others who cannot reach it themselves. My headmistress would be proud.
(And whatever you do, don’t watch SATC2. You may not be able to live with the shame)