Monday, March 08, 2004

The International Women's Day

Today is the International Women's Day, though you might not notice it very much if you live in the United States. If I recall correctly, last year's IWD-related programming from my local public radio station consisted solely of a humorous debate about whether the Hooters restaurant chain should take over managing the Amtrak trains in order to increase male passengership. As the NPR is supposed to stand for the extreme liberal media, I was quite disappointed. The right wing mainstream media is more understandably silent about the IWD, given that it has its roots in the women of the American Socialist Party who arranged large demonstrations in 1908 to call for the vote and for political and economic rights to women. The day became an international one in 1910 in the second International Conference of Socialist Women.

From the beginning there was some disagreement about the meaning of the IWD. Should it be a time for celebrating women's progress, for taking stock of what has been achieved or for demanding remedies to problems that have not been solved? My review of this year's news from all over the world proves that the same disagreement still prevails. Some stories take on a festive air of celebration, others lay out starkly the immense problems that women in many parts of the world face. I also found some new interpretations of the meaning of the IWD: it might be a good time to promise Chinese women that a woman, some day, though not yet, might be, perhaps, selected to be a taikonaut in the Chinese space program, or that the women in Brunei have their rights, as defined by others, of course, extremely well guaranteed. And the Iraqi Governing Council chose to move the IWD in Iraq from March 8 to August 18, the date of birth of the prophet Mohammed's daughter, thus connecting women's issues to religion.

I'm sure that the original founders of the IWD would be very pleased to see the progress that has taken place in the last near-century, and celebration is the correct response to this. Women now can vote in the majority of countries in the world. The recent Constitutional Loya Jirga in Afghanistan produced a constitution for the country which safeguards the rights of women as equal to those of men (though with the usual caveat of possible limits to this dictated by Islam), and in Rwanda women won 49% of the seats in Parliament. Even in Iraq women might be guaranteed a quarter of the parliamentary seats. Looks very good from where I'm sitting, in the U.S.A where women's share of seats in the House and Senate hovers around a little more than one in ten...

The 1908 socialists would also rejoice in seeing how women can work in almost any field of their choice today (with the exception, as usual, of many religious fields), and though their pay on average is not equal to men's, the ratio is considerably better than it was a century ago. Women have gained access to education in many countries of the world, to a point where they now outnumber men in higher education in countries as diverse as the United States, Colombia and Iran. ( That this trend is an international one casts serious doubt, by the way, on the argument popular in the U.S. that the greater number of women in higher education is due to an Evil Feminist Plot, unless these evil feminists somehow got their fingers into the pie in Iran as well.)

There is, indeed, much to celebrate. At the same time, much more remains to be done for the girls and women of this world. The education for girls is a pressing need that has not been met in many Asian and African countries, and customs and laws concerning marriage are still nowhere near fair and equal for the majority of world's women. And I'd like to see more women in positions of political power everywhere, not just in places like Scandinavia. It would be good for the world.

The most widely reported themes for this year's IWD are violence and the AIDS epidemic, especially in Africa. Noeleen Heyzer, the Executive Director of UNIFEM has this to say about women and AIDS:

Ten years ago, women worldwide made up 38 per cent of people infected with the disease. Today they make up 50 per cent. In some regions this ratio has tilted further towards women: in the Caribbean it is 52 per cent, in Africa, 58 percent. Ten years ago, women were at the periphery of the epidemic. Today, they are at its epicentre. For young women the situation is particularly alarming. Young women in the developing world outnumber young men among newly infected 15-24 year olds by two to one. The social impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls is greater - they are the ones who assume the burden of care when family members are affected by the disease, putting severe constraints on their access to education, employment, food cultivation, and often treatment. Violence against women, both a cause and a consequence of the epidemic, adds another major risk factor for transmission. Rape, sexual violence and women's inability to refuse unwanted sex or to demand safe sex are serious factors in the spread of the epidemic. (bolds mine)

Violence against women is the Amnesty International's topic for the IWD:

In poor and war-torn countries women suffer some of the worst abuse, Amnesty's figures show. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, some 40 women a day are raped, and many are unable to get medical treatment or report the crimes to the authorities.
In Somalia, more than 90 per cent of women are subjected to genital mutilation.
In Pakistan, a recent survey showed 90 per cent of married women have been abused by their male partners.
But in industrialized countries like Russia, where the Soviet constitution has proclaimed women's equality for more than 70 years, they are still socially and legally disadvantaged.
Some 14,000 Russian women each year are killed by partners or relatives, but there is no law addressing domestic violence.
In strict Islamic countries, women fare badly, regardless of their economic background.
"Fifty schoolgirls were burned to death and dozens of others were injured in a fire at their school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on March 11, 2002," the report says. "Religious police prevented the girls from leaving the building because they were not wearing headscarves, and had no male relatives there to receive them. They also reportedly prevented rescuers who were men from entering the premises."
However, wealthy Western countries are far from immune from violence against women.
In Canada, government statistics show 50 per cent of women are victims of at least one act of physical or sexual violence after they turn 16.
In France, 25,000 women are raped each year, and in Ireland 20 per cent of adult women have reported a sexual attack. In Iceland only 21 per cent of reported rapes end in a conviction for the accused attacker.

Violence doesn't necessarily discriminate on the basis of gender, of course. But women face the threat of specific acts of violence solely due to them being women, and the legal and law enforcement systems of many countries lag behind in acknowledging the seriousness of these acts. It is sad that the sexual violence against African women has become truly newsworthy only when it can be shown to affect the spread of the AIDS epidemic.

This International Women's Day I'm going to raise a toast for those socialist women of 1908. Bless their hearts. I'm going to feel proud and happy about all the progress that has been made, and I'm going to be a Fierce Goddess in Her Wrath about the dreadful scourges that still remain. After all that, I'm going to write a second post about George W. Bush and the International Women's Day.