Maria Fotopoulos: Time to celebrate women
International Women’s Day was March 8 and is celebrated all through the weekend by many around the world. In the U.S., the day complements a month-long recognition of women through Women’s History Month.
The day has been observed since the early 1900s, and one of its historic moments was in 1908 when 15,000 women took to the New York City streets, demanding better pay, a shorter work day and the vote — the latter they won in 1920.
The intent behind the day evolved in the decades that followed. In many countries, International Women’s Day is an official holiday, connected with a gift giving tradition, where men honor the women in their lives. While the day is now one to acknowledge and celebrate women’s successes, it’s also a time to call attention to the great need globally to achieve equality for women and a good quality of life.
From grassroots efforts and educational outreach to commercial approaches, it’s being celebrated or acknowledged in varied ways around the globe this year. In Fiji, for instance, a year-long girls’ theater program is underway. There’s a nationwide letter-writing campaign in Canada directed to ending school-related, gender-based violence. Estonia is hosting a forum to encourage gender diversity in the engineering field.
Women in Afghanistan are participating in the country’s first women’s film festival, with films made by women about women. “A Promise is a Promise: Time for Action to End Violence Against Women” is the United Nations theme for International Women’s Day and is particularly fitting for Afghanistan, where more than 4,000 cases of violence were reported in a seven-month period last year, and where the average life expectancy of a woman is just 44 years.
But Afghanistan certainly is not alone in its challenge to improve the lives of females. The United Nations says that violence against women and girls touches up to seven in ten females worldwide. That violence takes many forms: domestic violence and abuse, sexual violence, human trafficking, sexual slavery, female genital mutilation, murder in the name of honor and child marriage.
The United Nations also says that women bear the brunt of modern conflicts and wars, where rape is often used as a weapon. Currently, there are nearly 40 minor and major conflicts worldwide, including just south of our U.S. border in Mexico.
Those are the worst of the statistics. But there are other day-in and day-out grinding factors at work.
Worldwide millions of women have limited say in the very basic decisions that impact their lives and those of their children. There are 39 million girls worldwide not in school (850,000 of those in Western Europe and North America), and there are half a billion illiterate women worldwide — nearly two-thirds of the total number of illiterate people. Economically, women throughout the world have less access to credit, jobs and property than do their male counterparts.
That’s a lot of bad news for women. But the executive director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, says “Change is possible.”
She says, “The message has two sides, one of hope and one of outrage — a message of hope because awareness and action are rising for women’s rights. The belief is growing that enough is enough. A message of outrage because women and girls continue to suffer high levels of discrimination, violence and exclusion.”
As we reflect on the status of women on this day, it’s a good time for us all to think about what we can do. One thing we can do is recognize the numerous organizations across the country and across the world who work to better the lives of women and support their work. Changing women’s status can change the world.
Maria Fotopoulos is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.