Change demanded, celebrated on International Women's Day 2011

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Jane Arscott, Athabasca University
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Portfolio’s series marking the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

March 8, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD).The United Nations has declared the theme for the centenary as, ‘Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.’

In Canada, the majority (57%) agrees that much remains to be done to achieve gender equality. Moreover, less than a quarter of 5,000 respondents in a 4-nation study conducted by Angus Reid Global think an acceptable level of gender equality has been achieved. Canadian men (50%) and women (64%) agree the achievement of gender equality in Canadian society would require new policy initiatives in areas such as child care, parental leave and equal pay. Improving the lives of women through the redress of remaining inequalities garnered overall support in the poll.

While opinion polls and public attitudes acknowledge the persistence of gender inequality, the demand for change barely registers in the overarching policy framework of the federal government. Previous Equity Matters blogs about pay equity and the disappearance of gender equality from the federal policy agenda help to explain why policy complacency prevails. IWD reminds politicians, policymakers and citizens alike that Canada is not alone in the continuing struggles for gender equality and the accompanying principles of non-discrimination, equity, diversity and inclusion.

IWD is an annual celebration of women’s progress and an occasion to renew demands for change. Demands and progress join hands in a gesture of solidarity on 8 March. In what follows I want to recall the origins of IWD in the socialist labour movement, identify some demands for change globally, and conclude with an exhortation to keep demands for further change in the foreground when celebrating progress.

IWD originated as a day of protest to amplify demands for shorter work hours, safe working conditions, better pay and democratic practices such as the right to associate, to form and join unions, to bargain collectively and the entitlements to vote and stand for elected office. At the time women could vote nationally in only two countries. In 1910 German Social Democrat Clara Zetkin proposed a day for women to be celebrated in countries around the world. A subsequent proposal to the second International Conference of Working Women was approved by women from 17 countries who represented labour unions, socialist parties, parliamentarians and clubs of working women. Inaugural rallies held in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March 1911 attracted more than one million women and men calling for women’s rights to work, vote, hold public office and receive vocational training. Social movements, labour, unionism, and international socialism are integral to IWD. This is a prickly fact for today’s corporate supporters who are eager to co-opt IWD’s progressiveness for their own purposes.

Within a week of the event, 146 garment workers died in an industrial fire in New York. The loss of life among economically vulnerable Italian and Jewish garment workers epitomized the need for regulation and legislation to change working conditions. The tenuous rights of workers consolidated the labour orientation of IWD in the United States in the following decades.

In March 1917, Russian women protested sacrifices of life and well-being and called for peace, land and bread. The women’s efforts galvanized opposition to the Czar, hastening his abdication that led in turn to the creation of a provisional government that enfranchised women. Subsequent support for IWD from Communist governments did not recommend the event to the opponents of Soviet expansionism.

Recognition of IWD has waxed and waned, with the governments of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom never completely letting go of suspicions exacerbated during the Cold War about the event’s socialist origins and its penetration by foreign, meaning Communist, subversives. Enthusiasm for IWD has remained muted in official government circles as evident even now by the Status of Women’s minimal attention to IWD.

In 2011 IWD is a statutory holiday in 27 countries. The internet provides many opportunities for women to stage and report their own events and activities online. One corporate sponsor, Google, supports a panoply of worthy causes that will receive donations focused on topics such as women’s empowerment, economic security, education and leadership, health, and safety and security. The website reports:

  • 75% of all women cannot get bank loans because they have unpaid or insecure jobs and lack property ownership rights (UNDP and MWOMAN).
  • “Women perform two-thirds of the world’s work and produce half the world’s food, but earn just 10% of the income and own 1% of the property” (WfWI).
  • Women are 21% less likely than men to own a mobile phone, and therefore have lesser possibilities of communication (UNDP and MWOMAN).
  • Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults (ages 15 and over) are women (Camfed USA).
  • “Educate a girl in Africa and she’ll earn 25% more income, be 3 times less likely to contract HIV/AIDS and have a smaller, healthier family” (Camfed).
  • “Only 28 countries have achieved the 30% target set in the early 1990s for women in decision-making positions.”  (UN Women) Canada is not among them (22%).
  • “Worldwide, women are paid 17 % less, and have less employment security than men.”
  • 99% of maternal deaths are preventable, but every minute a woman dies from pregnancy-related causes (International Organization for Women Foundation).
  • Worldwide, young women (15-24) are 1.6 times as likely as young men to be HIV positive. Every 14 seconds, another child becomes an orphan due to AIDS-related deaths (International Organization for Women Foundation).
  • 1 in 3 women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise violated in her lifetime (UNIFEM).

Google’s website also lists international non-profit organizations dedicated to women’s empowerment. The listing runs the gamut of high-profile international agencies that separately and collectively seek to make the lives of women and girls better as does the newly created organization UN Women.

UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet reminds the world, “Gender equality must become a reality.” In a message posted to YouTube, Bachelet praises the 100th anniversary of IWD as a global celebration, a “century of progress, a century of women using their collective voice to organize for change.” To this end UN Women was created by the UN General Assembly 2 July 2010 to “accelerate progress” toward gender equality and the empowerment of women girls by acting as their “global champion.” Amidst the celebrations, demands for change must also be heard.

Women in the Middle East have been active in rebelling against autocrats. It remains to be seen whether women across the region ultimately will be empowered by attaining the rights they demand. What is clear, however, is that it is women “emerging as a driving force that is keeping the momentum of the protests going,” a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch observed. In Iran, protesters have received permission to march in the capital on International Women’s Day. Marchers will demand democratic reforms, including the demand for legal equality for women.

Without the continued demand for change, further progress will not be made. What, then, will there be to celebrate? IWD has been a success for 100 years due to its current and historical relevance. Demands for change are rife around the world, and this will continue to be the case for some time to come. For this reason the prospect that IWD will be commemorated in another hundred years is bright.

The public face of gender equality remains stoic in its complacency. Yet, the Angus Reid Global poll highlighted Canadians’ willingness to address women’s inequality. Demanding change, like celebrating progress, drives prospects for the future of gender equality in Canada as elsewhere.

Jane Arscott is an associate professor and Coordinator of Human Services in the Centre for Work and Community Studies, Athabasca University.


Equity Matters


Gender equity