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International Women's Day – what to celebrate, what to condemn?

March 8, 2012
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It’s international women’s day today and the media and blogosphere are bouncing with ‘glass half full’ and ‘glass half IWD1empty’ discussions of the state of women’s rights. So let’s look at both halves of the glass (for a more pop version, this Independent on Sunday curtain-raiser is hard to beat, and I loved my friend Claire Melamed’s tirade against IWD cupcake feminism).

In the optimist camp, there are some encouraging signs at the international level, epitomised by the creation of UN Women in 2010 under the leadership of Michelle Bachelet, and the focus of the 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development. At a regional level, the African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women has been a significant rallying point for African women’s organizations.

That global recognition is reflected in huge progress in terms of legislation at national level. According to UN Women’s most recent ‘Progress of the World’s Women’ report:

‘In 1911 [the year of the first IWD], just two countries in the world allowed women to vote. A century later, that right is virtually universal and women are exercising greater influence in decision-making than ever before. Alongside iwd_first_1women’s greater political influence, there has been a growing recognition of women’s rights, not only political and civil, but also economic, social and cultural rights. Today, 186 countries worldwide have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), signalling their commitment to meeting the human rights of women and girls, breaking down the barriers to gender equality and justice.’

Donors such as DFID have also moved to place greater emphasis on girls’ education and maternal mortality, among other themes. Debates have also grown around the gender impact of different religious institutions, with some seeing a ‘war on women’ emerging from many quarters, while others argued for wider recognition of different forms of ‘religious feminism’ operating in many faiths.

On the ground, there is huge progress in girls’ education and inspiring and fascinating news from all quarters. The mighty We Can campaign on violence against women in South Asia and the work of the numerous partners in Oxfam’s Raising Her Voice project are just a tiny part of a worldwide movement whose day it is today.

Moving from half full to half empty, there are doubts about some of the ‘progress’. To what extent is educating and employing women seen as a way of generating growth (women for development) rather than reshaping economic and financial systems to improve the rights, power and lives of women (development for women)? Feminist economists have had little success (at least, compared to their environmental counterparts) in mainstreaming issues such as the care economy, while the undoubted gains of the Arab Spring remain fragile and will depend for consolidation on the kind of political, social and economic norms that emerge in its wake.

Fully in the half empty category, there is the continuing disparity in the daily lives of men and women, who have increasing participation in the paid workforce even as they continue to  shoulder the bulk of care in the home (see cartoon from the World Bank/Water and Sanitation Program’s 2012 calendar [h/t Lucy Russell, via John Magrath])women and water 2
And there remains of course a horrendous litany of horror stories, from acid attacks to FGM to maternal mortality, which unlike most other MDGs is scarcely falling. A thousand women die in childbirth every day, almost all of them avoidably and in low income countries.

Whether it is progress or protest that motivates you, gender equality is one of the great causes of the age, and Oxfam is pretty involved – a few examples:

A memorable comparison between Gender Mainstreaming and Basingstoke from a workshop report by Caroline Sweetman, editor of the excellent Gender and Development journal, and a video slot from gender guru Caroline Moser from the same workshop.

Gender equality: it’s your business’: A new gender briefing for business, also available in groovy ebook formats

And from the Raising Her Voice programme, a couple of video slices of life: a 6 minute taste of the daily struggle to confront domestic violence and build women’s participation in Honduras (I’m going there next week, so expect more on the blog)

And 5 minutes on women in Pakistan using the courts to get their voices heard on the zakat committees administering charitable funds

And for something more light hearted, nothing beats the unforgettable EQUALS video featuring James Bond. Respect Daniel Craig.

12 comments

  1. Hi Duncan

    I couldn’t get the link to girls’ education in your blog to work, but information can be found on the Education for All Global Monitoring Report gender overview: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/ED/pdf/gmr2011-gender-overview.pdf

    18.4 million more girls are in school now thanks to a narrowing of the gender gap in primary school – but still a way to go to close the gap, and even further to go in equalising opportunities.

    I agree with Claire on the cupcakes!

  2. Duncan
    may every day be International Women’s Day!

    and maybe you can add ‘women’s rights’ to your blog ‘s categories

    Also:
    Please check out another kind of cupcake on the EQUALS website

    1. Thanks Ines, I’ve been thinking about adding a ‘gender’ category, but to be honest, the thought of trawling back through several hundred posts and recategorising has put me off. Any volunteers? If not, I guess it’s one for a rainy day. And your cupcake video is truly harrowing – I feel physically sick. Still, I guess if it gets the message across…..

  3. The country where I am seems to take Valentine’s Day pretty seriously but there isn’t a lot of attention being paid to IWD. I suggest we merge the two. I’m happy to get red roses but only after I get equal pay.

  4. Ines- I agree with you! Wish we had the same amount of attention to women’s rights/news/issues all year round.

    re: the women’s rights category… this would be fantastic. When I started my research a year ago I DID spend a day going through your back catalogue reading and coding everything to do with gender. Gruelling stuff!

  5. Duncan and Lauren – you have a volunteer to back-categorise the blogs. Should the catergory be ‘Women’s rights’ as Ines suggests or ‘Gender’ as Duncan mentioned? Or something else? Also, should we take a broad view and include those posts where you discuss issues like maternal mortality (assume so)? I thought other readers might have a view so before we crack on with this, any thoughts? Lauren: if you have that list you made and not too much trouble it would be good to have a copy so we can cross-reference. oxfamblogs@gmail.com if you do.

    1. Brilliant Eddy, thanks. Let’s go with ‘gender’ as the broader category (unless anyone has violent objections) and yes, let’s take the broad view on what qualifies. Whoever the volunteer is, please give him/her my heartfelt thanks. While we’re at it, are there any other missing categories jumping out at people?

  6. Hah! If I had the hours I would… Unfortunately I was collecting information about gender and business specifically, for the ‘Gender Equality: It’s Your Business’ report you nicely re-posted here!

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