Reflections on International Women’s Day: What Have We Really Gained over the Past Century?

The official announcement that women are persons too.

The official announcement that women are persons too.

Women are Persons too

This year marked the 100th anniversary of commemorating International Women’s Day.  On the first International Women’s Day ( March 19, 1911), more than one million women and men in Denmark, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland attended public rallies to put an end to gender-based discrimination and to campaign for women’s rights to vote, hold public office, and access educational and professional training.  This year the international theme selected by the United Nations is equal access to education and training, science and technology.  Have we finally come full circle and closed the loop on these issues and banished gender-based discrimination? Or do we still have some work to do?

I’d like to think that after 100 years, the day should have been an unqualified celebration of having secured equal status and rights for all women everywhere in the world. But after reading Kiran Bedi’s book Empowering Women. As I See… (2008), Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women World-wide (2009) and a recent blog post by my friend Shoshana on the Gender Divide in India, it looks to me like we still have a long way to go before we can say that we have achieved our goals on a global scale.

As both Michelle Bachelet (Executive Director of UN Women and Under Secretary-General of the UN) and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon point out in their International Women’s Day messages, we have made tremendous progress over the past century in terms of expanding women’s legal rights and entitlements, encouraging women’s forays into professions that were previously closed to them, and introducing laws that, in theory, better protect women from discrimination and violence.  One hundred years ago, only a few countries allowed women to vote. Less than 100 years ago, the Canadian government seemed to think women were “unqualified” to be persons in their own right.  Thanks to the tenacious efforts of five women from Alberta (known as the “famous five”) who challenged the prevailing attitudes of the day, the Persons case (1929) decided once and for all that women are persons, too.

Most of the progress in the last 100 years has been made in the area of women’s suffrage and forays into being elected or appointed to hold public office.  Denmark has the honour of being the first democratic government to elect a woman to a government ministry position in 1924. However, the first country to elect a female Prime Minister in 1960 was not, as you might expect, a developed western nation; it was Sri Lanka.

Nonetheless, women are still under-represented as heads of states and government ministers in many of the 192 member nations of the United Nations.  There is also no guarantee that female heads of state or government ministers are automatically or necessarily empathetic to women’s issues. As Kristof and WuDunn explain, the women who come into political power, especially in developing countries, are usually from elite families and have never directly encountered many of the challenges that their female constituents contend with on a daily basis (2009: 197). Of course, one would hope that lack of direct exposure to a social issue would not preclude either an empathetic or compassionate response.

Ongoing Inequalities and Indignities

Despite the advances we have made, it is also the case, as pointed out by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that “women are regarded as second-class citizens in too many countries, and many women continue to endure unacceptable discrimination and violence, often at the hands of their intimate partners and relatives.” Furthermore, according to Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize-winning economist who has extensively researched both welfare equality and gender inequality, millions of girls and women have vanished from the planet as a direct result of gender discrimination. Kristof and WuDunn explain that in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish or perish at an early age (2009: xv) despite laws against infanticide and selective feticides based on the sex of the child.  (See this article on missing Asian women and the web site petals in the dust for more information.)

Too many of the world’s illiterate individuals are women, and too many girls are still denied an education—or they leave school earlier than boys.  According to UNESCO’s statistics, 64% of an estimated 796 million illiterate people in the world are women, and 54% of the 72 million school-aged children who are not in school are girls. We know that educating girls beyond basic literacy skills empowers them and expands their opportunities in life.  At the very least, educating girls leads to decisions to delay starting their families and to have fewer children.  An education also helps girls escape the additional oppressions brought on through a life of abject poverty and no options.

It is also the case that too many girls and women are denied access to the health care that would improve or save their lives.  Sometimes the lack of access is due to the lack of available health care services in many rural areas, but other times the lack of access is directly related to the perceived value of girls and women in various cultures.  Kristof and WuDunn relate several examples where sons get preferential treatment for routine and emergency health care over their sisters or mothers.  Mothers are more likely to get their sons rather than their daughters vaccinated against diseases, and as one central Asian man told Kristof and WuDunn, “A son is an indispensable treasure, while a wife is replaceable.” (2009: xvi).

Kristof and WuDunn point out that women in the West are not exempt from gender-based discrimination and violence, either.  For the most part, we do have better laws in place to protect women and help them fight back, especially when faced with systemic discriminatory practices.  We have also seen the gradual (and sometimes not so gradual) erosion of hard-won rights that affect women, and society as a whole, as the pendulum has swung to the socially and fiscally conservative right on the political spectrum in recent years.

Just Because You Write It Down, It Doesn’t Make It So…

I found myself wondering why gender discrimination and inequality continue to occur despite a United Nations’ international Convention to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) in 1979, an earlier Convention (1960) to eradicate discrimination in education, and laws passed in various nations to prevent social practices that arise from, or give rise to, gender-based discrimination.  Clearly, the process of ending discriminatory practices and bolstering equality is not as simple as believing that “If we write the policies, the changes will happen.”

It would appear that researchers monitoring progress on the UN’s Education for All campaign arrived at a similar conclusion in a recent (2010) UNESCO report.  The authors lamented that,

governments across the world are systematically violating the spirit and the letter of United Nations conventions obliging them to work towards equal opportunities for education. The failure of many governments to act decisively in tackling marginalization in education calls into question their commitment to the human right to education…. (2010: 137)

The same report recognized that much of the discrimination occurs informally and is embedded in a nation’s social, economic and political practices (2010: 135).  The authors also acknowledged that in many traditional societies, a girl’s education is perceived as less valuable than a boy’s education. However, the authors did not go so far as to point out that the embedded discriminatory practices flow from and are steeped in long-held cultural beliefs about the value of girls and women.

As many aid workers in the field would point out, drafting policies, laws and international conventions to eradicate gender-based discrimination and violence and bolster women’s equality is just the beginning of the change process.  Unless the effort is made to raise awareness of both the issues and desired changes among both the most marginalized groups in a society, and those responsible for implementing and enforcing policies and laws, there is no buy-in from the marginalized groups and precious little incentive to uphold laws or extend social change policies to poverty stricken, rural villagers.

The Power of Unexamined, Entrenched Beliefs

It is not just men and boys who might be understandably resistant to changes aimed at levelling the playing field.  (Some men are opposed to, and ready to take a stand against, discriminatory social practices that negatively women.) Paradoxically, some women and girls defend the very practices that work against and harm them.  As counter-intuitive as it seems,

…people do not always see the ways in which societal institutions or assumptions may hurt them or hurt the class of people to which they belong. This is particularly true of women because [cultures are] rife with all sorts of assumptions about women which inure to our detriment — assumptions about our essential nature…, our capabilities, our proper role, and our relationship with men. (The Happy Feminist, “A Lengthy Post on False Consciousness”, July25, 2006)

There are numerous reasons why women don’t challenge the cultural assumptions that are detrimental to them. Perhaps they are unable or fail to recognize external limits placed on their freedom of choice, or they have internalized prevailing attitudes even though they might suspect the attitudes are wrong, or the reality in many parts of the world is that it simply is not safe to speak out or stand up for themselves.

It is easy to say that empowering women to become more assertive and less subservient is the first step toward attaining greater social justice and equality in their societies. Depending on the social and political landscape, maybe it is also irresponsible to encourage women to stand up for themselves if aid workers and international organizations are not willing to champion and protect these same women when they risk their lives to speak up.

Does that mean we should stand by and not interfere with traditional beliefs and practices? No.  According to Kristof and WuDunn (2009), it does mean that we should:

  1. Study various models of social change to see what strategies work best, based on an awareness of cultural   specificities.  (What works in Africa might not work in South or East Asia, and vice versa.)
  2. Provide effective and pragmatic support to the women and the organizations that work with them.
  3. Continue to promote and lobby for universal education in developing countries.

Women owe it to themselves to stand up for their right to access education and health care; two resources that will effectively help them carve out a better life for themselves and their families. As a matter of principle, most nations need to make girls’ and women’s access to education and health care human rights issues and make them a higher priority on domestic and international policy agendas. From a purely pragmatic and economic perspective, nations are doing themselves a disservice because they are underutilizing one of their greatest resources.  As Kiran Bedi stated in her book Empowering Women…  As I See,

A healthy and educated woman is a national asset.  She contributes to the prosperity of society just as an illiterate, poor and unhealthy woman contributes to the increase of liabilities in society….  [I]ssues concerning women are not for women alone. They concern the whole society and the nation. (2008: 28)

Grassroots Activism—Seeding Changes from the Ground Up

Women’s rights are about human rights. Since the treatment of women and girls has important consequences for a society a whole, how do we encourage both women and men to start questioning the assumptions built into their cultural beliefs? How do we convince individuals who may be steeped in traditional ideas and practices that the value of women is equal to that of men, and that the long term benefits of keeping girls in school—or buying medicine for sick wives as well as sons–far outweigh the short term costs?

Should the call for change come from outside of the community or nation, or should the process of challenging and changing detrimental practices originate within a culture?  Kristof and WuDunn take the stance that leadership must come from within the developing nations.  Kiran Bedi firmly believes that rather than waiting for politicians to work on their behalf, women themselves should start organizing to bring about needed social changes in their own homes, neighbourhoods, and schools.

Pointing to the success of groups like Tostan, Kashf (a microcredit group that helps rural Pakistani women), the CARE project in Burundi, and groups in India such as SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) and Apne Aap, Kristof and WuDunn also firmly believe that the seeds of change must be tended from the grassroots up.  Aid workers and activists must be willing to go into rural areas and villages and engage local people in respectful and meaningful dialogues if they really want to get buy-in for social change programs.

It also means taking a more inclusive approach and framing concerns as issues that affect all people rather than just women (the strategy adopted by Tostan in rural African villages) or scheduling children’s school hours around other family and economic concerns (the approach taken by Kiran Bedi’s organization Navjyoti when they set up Gali schools in a Delhi slum). The trials, tribulations and failures of some large-scale, international campaigns have only highlighted the fact that local ownership of programs and projects, developed or modified to create effective bottom-up models of change, seem to consistently produce better results than top-down models or programs that may lack an appreciation of the realities on the ground.

Closing the Loop

I am inclined to agree with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn that “in [the twenty-first] century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.” (2009: xvii) Globally, it seems we’ve made more progress, over the last century, in terms of securing legal and civil rights for women than we have in securing the basic human rights to education, health care, and personal safety for all girls and women. I’m willing to argue that on a day-to-day level of existence, equal access to the human rights just listed would make a noticeably bigger improvement in the lives of many women.

We are seeing improvements, although visible progress often seems to take much longer than we’d like.  Nonetheless, courageous and progressive thinking individuals within developing nations are banding together and patiently pushing for greater equality.  They’ve realized that working from the ground up to change attitudes, educate women, and provide them with adequate health care and economic opportunities eventually benefits everyone involved.

Here are some ways we can help support the work of these organizations.

  • We can form reading and action circles to get informed about women’s issues and rights so we can more effectively ask questions, reflect on our own beliefs about women’s rights and issues, and support others to identify and evaluate some of their assumptions about what gender equality means.
  • We can organize and build strong coalitions and lobby politicians to follow through on domestic and global commitments to support women’s equality and eradicate gender-based discrimination and violence as human rights issues.
  • We can choose to donate money to an organization like Global Giving or Kiva.
  • Instead of accumulating more “stuff” on our birthdays and other special occasions, we could ask others to make a donation in our name instead of giving us gifts.
  • Equally—or perhaps more—valuable than monetary donations are your time, skills, and energy.  Consider volunteering for an organization committed to empowering women.

None of us reading this now will be here in 2111 to reflect on the equality status of women over the next hundred years. If you could jump ahead to the future, how would you want this story to unfold?  How else might you contribute, now, to creating a socially just world where all people are valued and treated equally? I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas in the comments section.

March 31, 2011 · Susan · 8 Comments
Posted in: Social Justice

8 Responses

  1. Kate - April 1, 2011

    Hi Sue,
    This is great — provocative and well researched.
    I’d love to see it as part of the Be The Change Earth Allliance’s social justice curriculum. Thoughts?

  2. Susan - April 1, 2011

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. And thank you for your ongoing encouragement and support for my decision to speak my truth and vision through my blog.

    I’d be delighted to include this piece as part of Be The Change Earth Alliance’s social justice curriculum. I’d be happy to contribute or write other pieces for the curriculum as well. We can always talk about that possibility offline. I’m looking forward to hearing you talk at the The Great Turning unconference at the end of this month.

    Bright blessings,

  3. Pam Sourelis - April 3, 2011

    Thank you for this excellent article, Sue, for the history lesson and for the call to action.

    Another area of injustice that moves me deeply is the sex slave industry. A student in one of my writing classes recently wrote an essay examining the spike in this activity around major sporting events, such as the Super Bowl here in the States.

  4. Susan - April 3, 2011

    Hi Pam,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, trafficking girls and young women for the purposes of sexual slavery is a big concern in North America as
    well as in the developing countries. In the North American context, some of these girls and young women are recent immigrants (legal or
    otherwise), but a number of them are also American or Canadian girls from middle class homes who are either abducted or lured into sexual
    slavery. The injustice, particularly in many of the developing nations, is not just tied to the inappropriate abuse of power over vulnerable individuals;
    it’s also tied to the fact that most of the victims come from impoverished, illiterate, often rural backgrounds, and as they apparently don’t seem to count
    as being equal citizens, not a lot of effort is put into cracking down on the trafficking of these girls (and more rarely, boys).

  5. Sharon - April 5, 2011

    Sue, thankyou for summarizing, citing and referring to a wealth of information for us to explore. I really enjoyed reading your blog, and I will now check out some of the references you presented!

    When I first read “Half the Sky”, I was stunned to learn the statistics of global gender inequality, and began to explore where this stems from. I’ve come to agree that gender reconciliation is the key to lasting social change. Will Keepin and Cynthia Brix, of the Satyana Institute, are doing some amazing work, globally, in challenging our cultural assumptions around gender.

    I would love to see a Be the Change Action Circle around social justice, or specifically gender equality. Let’s have a dialogue on this…perhaps partnering with NWEI and/or Oxfam???

    I also encourage others to donate to the organizations supporting women globally, such as KIVA and Global Giving.

    As a parent, I am constantly challenging our own culture around gender with my children. It is amazing the effect that media has in supporting the gender INequality that exists for North Americans!

    Thank you so much for revitalizing my awareness and questioning around gender Sue~!

  6. Susan - April 11, 2011

    Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comment–and a call for other actions we can take. I was aware of the global statistics on gender-based inequality and violence, but rereading them was a stark reminder of extensive the challenges are (here and in developing nations). As useful as the statistics are in giving us an idea of how pervasive the issue is, they also tend to depersonalize it as well. More than the statistics it was the stories of how individual women’s lives had been affected by inequality and violence that moved me.

    I agree that an Action Circle specifically around gender equality would be a great idea. I talked with Maureen about a social justice circle and we’ll look at that in May–after the Great Turning conference. I’m happy to talk with you about that offline. Thank you for all the great work you did in pulling together information about gender equality issues for the Action Circle participants’ guide.


  7. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now - April 6, 2011

    I’m always surprised to find out that people don’t celebrate women more. We need to stop exploiting who they are and allow them to fulfill their own destiny.

    I understand it’s a control issue. This also surprises me because we need to advance as a society and grow together. If we hold back someone we are holding back ourselves.

    Thanks for sharing your views on this important topic. The more we shine awareness on this the more people that will pay attention and hopefully change.

  8. Susan - April 11, 2011

    Hi Karl,

    Thanks for your comments and support. I would say need to recognize that it’s about recognizing that females have the same right to personal and economic security and fulfillment as males by virtue of being human. As many of the international aid organizations have found, it’s a real challenge to encourage people to start examining cultural attitudes, beliefs and social customs that have existed for literally hundreds of years without being questioned. Yet until people start to examine how their beliefs and actions hurt everybody in a society, it’s difficult to get people to want to change. I hope that with increased awareness people will also take action and inspire, encourage and support others to be social change agents, from the ground up. One of the things we can do here in developed countries is learn to ask more questions (think critically), speak up when we hear and see social injustices, and just vote with both your dollar and your ballot slip.


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