International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated in many countries around the world. This day recognises the achievements of women beyond national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political divisions.
IWD first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century across North America and Europe.
Since those early years IWD has assumed global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike. The growing women’s movement has been strengthened by four United Nations women’s conferences.
Start of IWD : The roots of IWD can be traced to 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding voting rights, better pay and shorter working hours. They were ordinary working women rooting for a better future for their children.
A year later, the first US National Woman’s Day was observed on February 28 1909, with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America.
In 1910, Clara Zetkin – leader of the ‘women’s office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany – floated the idea of an International Women’s Day which every country could celebrate on the same day every year to push for women’s demands. A conference of more than hundred women from 17 countries agreed to her suggestion and International Women’s Day began in 1911, celebrated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on March 19. In 1913, March 8 was decided to be the International Women’s Day, and it has been celebrated on that day ever since.
The UN and IWD: The Charter of the United Nations, signed in 1945, was the first international agreement to affirm the principle of equality between woman and man. Since then, the UN has sponsored international strategies, standards, programmes and goals to advance the status of women worldwide.Over the years, the UN and its agencies have promoted the participation of women as equal partners with men in achieving sustainable development, peace, security and respect for human rights. The empowerment of women is a central feature of the UN to address social, economic and political challenges across the globe.
The United Nations recognised March 8 as International Women’s Day in 1975, declaring it the International Women’s Year.
The United Nations recognised March 8 as International Women's Day in 1975, declaring it the International Women's Year.
In 1996, the UN commenced the adoption of an annual theme for IWD each year. In that year it was "Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future". The theme was "Women at the Peace Table" in 1997, "Women and Human Rights" in 1998 and "World Free of Violence against Women" in 1999 and so on. More recent themes are, "Empower Rural Women, End Poverty & Hunger" and "A Promise is a Promise - Time for Action to End Violence against Women". The UN theme for IWD 2018 is “Press for Progress”.
IWD and centenary of women’s suffrage: This year marks the centenary of women’s suffrage. For the first time in history women got the right to vote in a limited scale a hundred years ago in Britain. Bangladesh, as part of the Indian Subcontinent, was under British rule at that time. Women from the subcontinent also took part in the suffrage movement in London. Eventually after a long struggle the People’s Representation Act was passed on Feb 6, 1918. Women earned the right to vote after a long movement for the same.
The Act enfranchised only some women and they were those who were over 30, those who had property of their own and the small number of women who were university educated. Many of the rights that the women of today take for granted were unthinkable at one time. Women’s position in the society has undergone a major shift in recent times but the process has been arduous and it is still ongoing.
Suffragettes - pioneers of IWD: The women who fought for women’s voting rights (suffrage) are popularly called as the suffragettes. The suffragettes were the pioneers of women’s rights movements. No discussion on International Women’s Day can be complete without mentioning the pioneer of women’s suffrage as this year commemorates the centenary of women earning the right to vote.
We must remember Emmeline Pankhurst, Milicent Fawcett, Sophia Duleep Singh (daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab) to name a few who fought to get this right for all women. Emmeline Pankhurst (15 July 1858 – 14 June 1928) was a political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement. She formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 for women’s suffrage.
The suffragettes were jailed several times for the movement but they never gave up the fight for women’s voting rights. That they had to struggle so hard and long for something which is so common and taken for granted today speaks in itself about women’s status in society at that time.
Emmeline Pankhurst wrote: ‘When the long struggle for the enfranchisement of women is over, those who read the history of the movement will wonder at the blindness that led the Government of the day to obstinately resist so simple and obvious a measure of justice.’
The British Parliament granted women limited suffrage in 1918. Emmeline Pankhurst died in 1928, shortly before women were given full voting rights. A hundred years later, women are equal citizens in law in many countries of the world, thanks to the early suffragettes.
Women’s rights in Bangladesh: Bangladesh is unique in that the country has been governed by successive women Prime Ministers since 1991. Presently in Bangladesh Government the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House, the Opposition leader and 20 per cent Members of Parliament are women. The 10th Parliament of Bangladesh has 22 elected and 50 selected women MPs. In politics, we have clearly travelled quite far. This is truly phenomenal for a country that earned freedom from alien subjugation less than five decades ago. Traditionally women enter politics following a male family member. More participation of women entering politics independently will result in policies conducive to women’s progress. Three women of Bangladeshi origin are elected British MPs. They are Tulip Rizwana Siddiq, Rushanara Ali and Rupa Huq.
Women’s education in Bangladesh: In Bangladesh the maximum progress has been made in women’s education. More girls now reach the secondary level than ever before. Though more progress is needed in reducing females dropping out at the secondary level due to early marriage and other social barriers but most families now educate the female child resulting in literate women population.
However, passage of a hundred years is a very long time and yet women remain distant from equal representation. Though more women are becoming literate but most are not reaching the tertiary level. This is reflected in the number of women in the administration which has 11 per cent women Secretaries and 17 per cent Deputy Secretaries at present.
Women in Bangladesh economy: Women, the pillars of the garments sector, the main foreign exchange earners, are now going abroad too as domestic helps. However, a pay chasm remains in all the sectors that women work in. Its entrenched nature has become more self-evident with the media and researchers highlighting the disparity. Carrie Gracie, a top BBC journalist, opened the lid of the gender pay gap and accused it to be a “secretive and illegal” pay culture. Therefore a lot needs to be done to reach parity with regard to women’s economic rights.
Women’s movement against violence: The issue of violence against women needs to be seriously addressed to allow women to enjoy the fruits of all the other gains in their rights. Though laws are there but gender based violence still remains to diminish all other gains. Violence takes place among all classes and ethnic groups, in the home, at workplaces and in the streets. It has also morphed into modern forms of abuse such as through online trolling and internet pornography.
Women’s movement against violence and abuse gained momentum with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, leading to Carrie Gracie’s pay protest against the BBC and events at the President’s Club dinner - it feels as if discriminatory social norms and previously unchallenged behaviours are being brought into the spotlight as never before.
IWD needs collective action of women and men: IWD belongs to all communities everywhere - governments, companies, charities, educational institutions, networks, associations, the media and more. Everyone can play a purposeful part in pressing for gender parity and demand for a world in which both women and men can live free from harassment and abuse and ensure that the future for girls is bright, equal, safe and rewarding.
Collective action and shared responsibility for driving gender parity is needed to make IWD successful. Gloria Steinem, renowned feminist, journalist and activist said, “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”
IWD is not country, group or organisation specific. The day belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. So together, let’s all be tenacious in accelerating gender parity. Collectively, let’s all “Press for Progress”- as the UN theme for IWD 2018 goes!
So to make a difference, think globally and act locally! Make everyday “International Women’s Day”.
The writer is a columnist.