Monday, March 10, 2008

International Women's Day

Saturday, 8 March, was International Women's Day. It was observed on Friday in many places because not many working people today are willing to give up part of their weekend for an official observance, no matter how worthy. But that itself is cause for celebration, for it was not that long ago that Saturdays were working days for women -- and children and men. -- even in affluent countries.

There are various explanations of how IWD came to be on 8 March. The most popular is that it is tied to an 1857 demonstration by women garment workers in New York city to press for better working conditions. Their peaceful march was broken up by club-wielding police. A half century later (51 years, to be exact), another demonstration was held on 8 March to commemorate the 1857 event; in addition to demanding improved working conditions, it pressed also for universal suffrage and an end to child labor. As at the earlier event, the New York city police made their presence felt.

In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin of Germany -- “the most dangerous sorceress in the empire," the Kaiser called her -- proposed the date for an annual observance to honor working women. It remained a socialist observance till the United Nations, in organizing International Women's Year and the first World Conference on Women (Mexico City, 1975), decided to make the Day a universal observance. (By the way, the official UN book on the conference, Meeting in Mexico, has an interesting back story. The head of the UN Center for Economic and Social Information, a man who regularly got too happy at lunch, got into conversation with the woman driving his post-prandial taxi to the UN, and on the strength of her claim to be "a writer," gave her a consultancy to produce the book. I had to completely rewrite the ragtag manuscript that emerged some $15,000 later.)

At the UN, International Women's Day has come to be an annual opportunity to take stock of progress -- or lack thereof. This year, the theme for the Day was "investing in women." Some twitters:
  • The International Labour Organization said in a new report that more women are working than ever before – 1.2 billion in 2007 -- but they continue to do low-paid jobs.
  • Unicef reported that "one in four pregnant women currently receives no antenatal care, and that more than 40 per cent give birth without the assistance of a skilled attendant
  • Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that while rape was almost universally recognized as a crime, it was often not punished because legislation was lacking or local customs prevented laws from being enforced. “In addition, at least 53 States still do not outlaw rape within marriage, and men frequently enjoy total impunity for physical as well as sexual violence against their wives.”
  • Joanne Sandler, Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), announced a fund-raising partnership with the Avon Foundation that will involve its "global ambassador," the actress Reese Witherspoon, publicizing the "hidden pandemic" of violence against women. Avon will sell a "new fund-raising product" -- the Women’s Empowerment Bracelet –- the profits from which will go to an "Empowerment Fund" managed by Unifem, to "support initiatives to improve implementation of laws and policies focused on violence against women." Witherspoon, whose stardom in Legally Blonde makes her a natural to straddle the worlds of cosmetics and law, modeled the bracelet at a UN Press conference.
  • Inez Murray, Vice-President of Women’s World Banking, said at a UN Press briefing that her network of microfinance providers had given loans averaging $491 to 11 million people, 73 per cent of them women.
  • Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), noted that without a greater investment in women, the UN's Millennium Development Goals could not be met. Investment was particularly important, she said, in improving "reproductive health;” that would help reduce poverty, slow the spread of HIV/AIDS, and "meet the need for family planning."
  • Over one hundred representatives of non-governmental organizations from forty countries met at a seminar in Geneva organized by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). In a joint statement they noted that the combined budgets of UN bodies working on women's issues is $65 million, 0.005% of world military expenditures. Of $20 billion in bilateral aid in 2001-2005, only $5 billion was allocated to projects promoting gender empowerment,"the cost of approximately 2 weeks of the occupation of Iraq." The statement said: "We need to examine the relationship between masculinity and war as much as the relationship between women and peace. Men and women experience war very differently, from war-making to peace-building and everything in between. In any given army, 90 percent of the soldiers are men while in any given refugee camp, 80 percent of the adults are women."
Perhaps more than any of the official events at the UN, the most meaningful observance of International Womens's Day was the "women's fair" organized by its agencies in Kabul. It was well-attended by women who a few years ago under the Taliban regime were unable even to emerge from their houses without a male minder. There was music and dance at the fair (both anathema to the Taliban), and agency staff provided information on education and health.

No comments: