International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on each March 8th. All days are important to celebrate women as mothers, teachers, farmers, nurses, doctors, peace-builders and charity-workers, etc. but a special day set for this recognition also gives us opportunities to ‘face’ the existing challenges. Despite the fact that women are reported to provide two-thirds of the world’s work, they are only compensated with one-tenth of our global income. This shows gross inequality with regards to access to economic empowerment and the guarantee of dignified lives without the threat of poverty and its devastating effects. Women are also underrepresented in other spheres of society the World Economic Forum boldly states in its recent report on the Global Gender gap. From political to the social spheres, women everywhere have not achieved parity with men to determine the lives they will live. This alone galvanizes enough reason to rise up for justice so that our world becomes freer and safer for men, women, girls and boys. Women’s Day is relevant to be celebrated in corporate institutions, academic and research centers, media houses, in the offices of NGOs or civil society, government ministries, parliaments, even churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. However, I will be little bias with the way I view today’s celebration for a key reason. It is the last IWD before 2015, the year that the global community has promised to reach a world whose poverty and hunger levels are reduced to half; increased access to global universal education (especially girls’ enrollment); reduce the burden of child mortality and improve maternal health; empower women and achieve gender parity and without leaving HIV, Malaria and TB to cause havoc to humanity among other goals. Indeed the MDGs are perhaps the most action-oriented pro-development agreement that has indeed the capacity of changing our world to a better and secured place for humanity.
Achieving any global development commitment is only real if women acquire equality with men in all spheres of life. As we have registered various achievements such as enrolling many more girls in schools than any other time in the world’s history; getting millions out of poverty and reducing maternal mortality almost to half, the world is far from being a just place for men and women to live in dignity and realize their fullest potentials. As reported by the UN Women, there are still up to 222 million women without access to modern and reliable contraceptives; up to 31 million of school-going girls are not admitted; up to 287, 000 women die during pregnancy and child birth annually, 64 million girls are forced into marriages without their informed consent and only 21.4% of the world’s decision-making power (at parliamentary level) is resided in the hands of women. These facts show a world far away from equality hence the theme for 2014 “Equality for Women is Progress for All” speaks volume.
To provide our audience with a broader perspective on the 2014 IWD, the Outreach team has reached out to 14 young people across the world to share their perspectives on women’s equality and how it affects their countries, communities and even families. All participants (except one) are enrolled in the International Master’s Program in International Studies at the National Chengchi University, Taiwan. Monika Kočiová, a Slovakian says that the ‘evolution’ of development can take place if only her country attains equality for women. “Since the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc and fall of communism, Slovakia has gone through a rough path towards democracy and gender equality has been gaining more importance and place in the society”. She further states that women are presently gaining more leading positions in business and politics and the last Prime Minister been a woman was encouraging. However, she adds that “there is still a long way to go” in order to have an equal society as women still play traditional roles of family upkeep while they have to do this with their professional lives. On a final note that, Monika says she believes that the improvement of women’s status advances a society as they (women) are able to positively invest on their children and the public. Across various countries, women’s empowerment whether through microfinance schemes or serving in village political organizations, they tend to focus development policies towards areas like education, public health initiatives or increased investment on access to water and improved sanitation, I must add.
“Women’s equality means a lot for my country” says Detie Mashitar, from Indonesia. She reports that her country is currently involved in various strategies of acquiring parity between men and women. “In my country, women are allowed to access higher education, express their opinions, pursue their careers and even contest as presidential candidates”. In fact, she continues, political parties have minimum 30% quotas for women to ensure more female participation in governance and “a starting point to achieve gender equality”. I strongly believe that it is obvious that women’s full access to political organizations and participation in governance results to gender responsive budgets and policies within the government. It is hopeful that Indonesian women can tap on this opportunity to demand for greater investment in the needs of its women populace.
Milan Chen and Pearl Chen are both Taiwanese ladies who hold similar observations about the status of women in their society and how gender equality will impact on Taiwan. While Milan perceives that Taiwanese women are better-off today, compared to the past, Pearl stresses that the most evident gender inequality is found within the family. Both ladies agree that men and women in Taiwan have not reached equality and this should be a continuous engagement. In the words of Pearl, “When it comes to family, women are always the ones that are taken for granted to back off from their careers, and aspirations to assume the household responsibility. But it shouldn’t be so anymore. Women’s careers should be taken with the same weight as those of men’s. Women should have the right to dream, and the right to fulfill their dreams, and those should be taken as seriously as those of men’s”. I also observe that respect for a woman’s career is mostly threatened by traditional domestic expectations and unequal gender responsibilities thus women tend to be more vulnerable to career challenges than men in many societies. On a final note, Milan and Pearl both agree that there must be demand for women’s equality and this must be pursued until realized and firmly instituted within the society as a norm.
Moving to the Philippines, Therese Chua acknowledges her country’s recent achievements in improving the status of women. She says that perhaps her country has the highest level of women government officials within Southeast Asia. Interestingly, while gender stereotypes could be challenges in other countries, Therese says that “women in the Philippines are not restricted to stereotypical roles expected of them”. In the World Economic Forum's 2013 report, the Philippines is rank “among the top 10 countries that have narrowed the gender gap the most” for the year under review. Challenges however exist as she emphasizes that “issues of domestic violence, rape, and religious practices of FG/M still occur across the country, but are largely ignored or not paid enough attention to”.
Ivonne Bonila is from El Salvador. She says that gender equality for the case of her country “means justice, progress, having same opportunities for succeeding in life as male or female”. In order to contribute to women’s empowerment in her country, she is gaining higher education that will “directly or indirectly lead to gender equality for the transformation and progress of El Salvador”.
From France, Luc Chasseriaud says that his country has gone through some radical changes about women’s status such as laws that require equal pay for equal work. Despite most international perspective about women’s free status in his country, he argues that the French woman is still traditionally recognized as a family keeper and can be a dependent on her husband because of existing patriarchal norms. France, he says, is among the late European countries to grant franchise to women. In addition, until 1965, women need their husband’s consent to open personal bank accounts. However, these challenges, also contributed in making France an “important battlefield that promotes women’s rights globally”. In answering the question how he relates to the theme of this year’s IWD, Luc answered that women’s inferior position is a little complex with regards to his experience. While women in Confucian backgrounds are socialized to be unassertive, their partners might not appreciate this, yet the same partners are uncomfortable to be with women with higher education or pay checks than them. This is interesting but it shows how ideologies and religions might contribute in drawing lines of inequality between men and women. With a quotation from renowned pro-democrat leader Aun Sang Suu Kyi, Luc agrees that “in societies where men are truly confident of their own worth; women are not merely tolerated but valued”.
Interacting with Maargee Salgado from Honduras, she says that if women are empowered like men with equal access to economic resources, they positively improve living standards but importantly, “empowering women and achieving gender equality is first of all a human right”. For development and prosperity to be reached, Margee believes that equality must be first achieved; and if equality must be realized, men and women must have equal access to education, health care and labor, etc. These are very important observations as women’s improved status is closely linked to having access to education, health care and non-discriminatory employment.
Melisa Rodriguez is Belizean and she is particularly interested in women’s access to political positions and institutions. “Despite the great strides made in the fight against gender inequality, Belizean women are still largely under-represented on tables of power in our national government” she says. Women’s access to power within all sectors of the society, Melissa concludes, will be the essential way of building ‘stronger economies and break[ing] poverty cycles.
“From a family with strong female influence, I grew up understanding humanity is for humans. Period. Gender, race, age and disability, etc. didn’t enter the equation” says Daniel Wilkinson from the United Kingdom. In addition, he believes that equality for women and all people begins at home. Through “education and liberation”, girls will become changers of our world and will remove the existing barriers they face. “Once change has occurred, it will flow through the generations” he concludes. Empowering the girl child as a change-maker is indeed a powerful start we could learn from.
To Ysi Gavotte, equality for women is their ability to have equal right to attain “self-determination and responsibility”. Interpreting his meaning of equality, Ysi believes that gender equality has the potential of breaking all forms of disadvantaged situations women do find themselves in. He concludes that: “equality for women means half of our world's potential Sun Tzu's, Mozarts, and Einsteins are not discouraged from following their dreams and talents, and left languishing in the kitchen”. Women’s potentials and roles could be far extended beyond the border of the kitchen, as always, this result to stronger self-esteem, realization of goals and empowerment.
In a statement, Silvia Medina from Colombia believes that “gender equality is the state of peace and security for the world”. It might be difficult to add a point on this statement but when men and women see each other as partners and not through inferior-superior lenses, relations of all sorts could become stronger and better.
The final interviewee is Isatou Bittaye from The Gambia. To her, each day is worth calling for women’s empowerment but “International Women's Day is an important day for us to reflect and assess our progress in the advancement of women's rights and as well re-echo our demands to end injustice and discrimination against women throughout the world”. She says that equality for women means a lot in her perspective as a Gambian. Isatou calls for legal measures against FGM, tougher implementation of laws against child sexual exploitation and rape and improved institutions to cater for the needs of victims of violence and abuse. If parity has to be reached in her country, women’s political participation has to advance dramatically, more girls retain in school and higher education becomes more accessible to females. Even though Gambia has strived hard over the years, there is still need for greater commitment in economic, political and socio-cultural empowerment for the advancement of women’s lives so that we can contribute sustainably towards national development.
The opportunity of interacting with these young people of diverse cultures on women’s equality isn’t only educative to me but also inspiring. I hope the same go to our readers. Even though all the participants in this interview have different experiences, there is a common trait in the answers provided: when women progress, societies thrive! I am ending this edition of the Outreach with a quote: “investment in women and girls isn’t only the right thing do, says Jill Sheffield of Women Deliver, “but it’s the smart thing to do” and I hope that this statement is a formula to you all. To all participants, thank you for your time. Thank you for your commitment towards making our world a better, fairer and progressive one for women and all. Again, thank you and good luck.
 I initiated the Outreach as an interactive and educative initiative that reach out to individuals or organizations that are making a difference in their communities and countries to improve the welfare of humanity. The purpose of this initiative is to share inspirational stories and experiences that will inspire others to serve their communities/countries especially underserved or marginalized groups such as women, girls, the aged and minority ethnic groups.
This work was first published on Maafanta, an online newspaper.