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19 May 2019 | Gender

Do we still need to celebrate International Women’s Day in the year 2019?

Chanda Gurung Goodrich & Suman Bisht

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A woman drying sweetcorn in Jiaju Zangzhai, China. Women play a significant role in agriculture in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, but their lack of agency and financial autonomy needs attention. (Photo: Alex Treadway/ICIMOD)

For over a century, we have been observing International Women’s Day (IWD) as a symbolic celebration of the struggle for women’s rights. However, over the years, there has been a growing noise about the futility of this celebration. Some feel that gender equality has already been achieved, whereas others think that celebrating IWD only alienates men and distances them from the collective fight. Let us take a moment to reflect on what we have achieved regarding women’s status in society, the struggle behind it, and the long path that still lies ahead. In doing so, we can perhaps decide on the relevance of IWD in contemporary times.

There have been many trailblazing women who have fought patriarchy and social norms to stand for women’s rights, starting from the suffragettes who tirelessly campaigned to redefine democracy and secure women’s right to vote. But they are largely sidelined – made invisible – in today’s discourse. In contrast, there are many prominent men in history who are lauded for their role in the struggle for civil rights and liberty. Abraham Lincoln is hailed as a true hero who abolished slavery and fought for equal rights, liberty, and democracy in 19th-century USA. Closer home, Mahatma Gandhi is synonymous with the non-violent independence movement in India and the fight against discrimination. The same prominence is not afforded to women’s rights movements and the powerful women who led the change in various fields of human endeavour.

How many of us have really tried to learn about movements led by influential women working with the system to change the system? How many of us have heard of revolutionary women such as Millicent Fawcett, Pandita Ramabai, Swarnakumari Devi, Muthulakshmi Reddi, and Atiya Fyzee, to name a few? How many of us have tried to understand the sacrifices made by these daring women and their rationale behind women’s rights and suffrage? Over a century since women secured the right to vote, represent women’s voices, and shape their country’s policy on important matters, the participation of women in the parliamentary process is worryingly low. The World Bank reported that although women comprise almost half of the world’s population, parliaments around the world had only around 24% female members in 2017. The Hindu Kush Himalayan region – which has immense cultural diversity and environmental importance, with one-fourth of the world’s population depending on its ecosystem – also has low women’s representation in parliament (19.5% on average). Marie Curie is renowned as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize twice, but there were many brilliant female scientists before her, such as Emilie du Chatelet, Caroline Herschel, and Ada Lovelace. Likewise, Asian scientists such as Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, Chang Meemann, Tanzima Hashem, and Tu Youyou have also paved the way and effected meaningful discoveries. Yet, despite the contributions, many girls still do not have access to education and are discouraged from taking up careers in science and technology. Women constitute only an estimated 30% of all researchers globally in the fields of science, technology, and innovation. According to the data released by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics in 2018, only three of 18 countries studied in Asia have an equal or above proportion of women in these fields, and the Hindu Kush Himalayan countries perform disastrously in these parameters. Involvement in such fields is an important marker of progress.

There are countless women who have made incredible contributions to different facets of society but are still invisible. It is important to address this invisibility, because their accomplishments have not had the desired impact on the role and agency of women. Although it is an established fact that women are equally capable, the gender gap across various sectors remains alarming.

Women’s agency and financial autonomy are held back by gender-biased practices and policies on crucial issues such as land ownership, including inheritance. Women overcame great odds to secure the important right to hold and dispose of property on the same terms as men. Yet, a recent article circulated at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting showed that women own less than 20% of land globally, while it is as low as 10% in developing nations, as reported by a UN FAO survey.

A group of women rest in their fields in Limi Valley, Humla, Nepal. Women own less than 20% of land globally – this figure is as low as 10% in developing nations. (Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

Gender pay gap is a glaring issue that persists even for work of equal value, let alone through disparities that arise because of limited opportunities for women. A 2017 study by the UN reported that women around the world earn 23% less than men . However, policies do not address the unequal power relations with men, unequal wages, and share of domestic and other work responsibilities.

The failure to address women’s basic right to dignified, independent lives is also apparent. The WHO estimates that 830 women die every day from preventable complications in childbirth; women seem to be reduced to second-class global citizens – mere vessels for giving birth and for oppression. According to UNICEF, almost 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday , and UNODC reported that women and girls together account for 71% of trafficking victims. (Girls accounted for three out of every four children trafficked.) Despite the contributions that women have made in various fields, they are given limited opportunities and face more barriers to success. These obstacles are costly, not just for society but for the economy too.

So should IWD still be celebrated? Given all these pervasive gender-based inequalities prevalent and the continued invisibilization of women’s work even today – absolutely! A day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women is absolutely necessary so that we can bring invisible women of the past, present, and future to the forefront. More importantly, it is a reminder to everyone that we still need to fight biases, stereotypes, and discrimination to get our dues. Women may hold up half the sky, but they do so while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities. IWD is a day of reflection on the challenges ahead and a day for advocating for gender parity and a more equal world.

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