Today, the 8th of March, is International Women’s Day, when people across the globe come together to highlight prejudice, celebrate women, and recognise victories. It’s been around for more than a century, created in 1909 by suffragettes in New York who wanted to commemorate the march for women’s rights that had taken place there the previous year. It’s now an official United Nations event and popularly observed in most if not all countries by women and men from all walks of life.
This year, 2018, feel feels particularly significant. It’s the 100 year anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in the women’s suffrage movement: the 1918 Act that gave (some) women the right to vote in the United Kingdom. And it comes on the heels of an unprecedented 12 months of global activism for women’s rights, equality and justice. Campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup have received worldwide attention, and millions of women around the world have used the hashtags as a rallying cry, exposing sexual abuse and harassment, building communities around advocacy, and challenging repressive laws and power structures.
Global society is waking up to an uncomfortable truth. A century after the suffragettes’ victories, women and girls around the world still face a shocking lack of political representation, prejudice, exclusion, harassment and abuse. Raising awareness about this deep-rooted unfairness in the way society works is one of the reasons that International Women’s Day exists. Another reason is to celebrate the achievements of women, and to acknowledge victories.
So I thought maybe I’d have a crack at that second bit.
Here’s what’s happened since International Women’s Day 2017
On the 8th March 2017, exactly 12 months ago, in a story that received zero publicity in the Anglo-Saxon media, India passed a bill that made it mandatory for every women in the public and private sector to receive 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. It also required employers to provide six weeks of leave in the case of any termination, and made it illegal for women’s wages to be lowered because they were pregnant. Overnight the bill pushed India, the second most populous country in the world, into the top set of countries with maternity benefits.
In April 2017 Malawi, a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage, passed historic laws to raise the legal age to 18. Over the next few months, El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Guatemalafollowed suit, enforcing outright bans on child marriage, a level of action unprecedented in Latin America. In October, India’s Supreme Court struck down a clause that allowed men to engage in non-consensual marital sex with girls and raised the age of consent for all women to 18. And two days ago, on the 6th of March 2018, UNICEF revealed that in the last decade 25 million child marriages were prevented worldwide. One in five girls are now married before they are 18, compared to one in four a decade ago.
In May 2017, Saudi Arabia issued a decree allowing women to access education and healthcare services without the consent of a male guardian, and few months later women also received the right to drive. Kyrgyzstanpassed a law on domestic violence improving protection measures for survivors, simplifying reporting procedures and introducing behaviour correction for perpetrators and Tunisia followed suit in July, outlawing violence against women, and adopting new strict laws on domestic violence. In August, Lebanon and Jordan repealed archaic laws that allowed men accused of rape to escape punishment if they married their victim. This was the result of years of powerful advocacy and creative activism by women’s movements in the region. Abaad for example, a women’s rights group in Lebanon, hung bloodied wedding dresses in Beirut’s main promenade and put up billboards reading “a white dress doesn’t cover up rape.”
In August 2017 Nepal criminalised an ancient Hindu practice called chhaupadi that banished women from the home during menstruation and after childbirth. Ethiopia became the 42nd country to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus since 2000, thanks primarily to the efforts of female healthworkers. Afghanistan revealed that more than 9 million students are now enrolled in schools, 3.6 million of whom are girls. By comparison in 2002, only 900,00 students attended school. None of them were girls.
In September 2017, new data revealed that the United States teen birth rate had fallen by half over the past decade, a stunning public health victory that went largely unnoticed. Teen birth rates also fell in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, thanks to better education and better use of contraceptives. In August, Chile, one of the four countries in the Americas with a total ban on abortions, passed historic laws easing the restrictions, again the result of years of campaigning from grassroots women’s groups. And in October, updated research showed that the abortion rate in the United States has continued to decline, with the number of unwanted pregnancies decreasing by 25% since the 1990s.
Vast gender pay gaps continue to be one of the most damning aspects of sexism in modern society, but there have been signs of change too. In April 2017, it was revealed that the pay gap in the United States has narrowed from 36 cents in 1980, to 17 cents today. For young women, the gap has narrowed even more. In 1980, they earned 67% of their male counterparts, compared with 90% today. And on the 1st of January 2018, Iceland became the first country to legally enforce equal pay between men and women. Any public or private employer with more than 25 workers now has to prove it is paying equal wages for work of equal value or face daily fines.
At the beginning of 2018, a new report from the IPU showed that the proportion of elected women around the world has more than doubled since 1997, to around one-quarter of world parliamentarians. In places like Africa and the Middle East, the number has increased four fold. The United States has also seen women enter politics in unprecedented numbers. Emily’s List,the largest national organization devoted to electing female candidates, said that in the 10 months before the 2017 US election about 1,000 women contacted them about getting involved or running for office. Since the election, the number has exploded to more than 22,000. The number of women challenging incumbents for the upcoming 2018 midterms is almost four times the number at the same period in 2015. It can’t come too soon — the country ranks 104th in the world for female representation in government.
In September 2017, the #metoo campaign exploded into popular consciousness, as millions of brave women took to social media to share their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace. 1.7 million voices from 85 countries shared not only their painful stories of abuse but demanded changes in laws, traditions and mindsets which still stand in the way of a right to education, health, jobs, political representation, and economic empowerment. The shockwaves from that are still being felt.
At the end of 2017, TIME magazine named women speaking out against sexual and gender injustice their Person of the Year, naming the collective winner The Silence Breakers, and Merriam-Webster named ‘feminism’ as their word of the year.
All of this has happened in the last 12 months
It goes without saying that the journey to women’s liberation has a long way to go. Only 19 heads of state out of a possible 196 are women. The highest-paying fields are still dominated by men, and gender pay gaps exist across every industry, and every profession. Only 55 of the 500 richest people in the world are women. Women’s education and health continue to lag behind men’s. Most women around the world still aren’t compensated for crucial work they do to keep our economy afloat, from childcare, to cleaning and nursing. More than a third of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Female genital mutilation, femicide, gender-based violence and early marriage are still part of life for billions of girls and women.
Laws and policies can help, but they’re only one part of the equation. The problem with patriarchy is that it’s been around for so long that it’s become a way of thinking. Most men can’t imagine what inequality feels like because they’ve never experienced it. The incredible journey to gender equality is consistently stymied by persisting beliefs, misplaced feelings of superiority among men, negative cultural influences and horrible attitudes towards girls and women. These factors are much harder to legislate against.
However… the last 12 months have shown us that it is possible to make progress.
That gives me hope. A world where our mothers, sisters and daughters are free from harassment or abuse is a world that’s healthier and happier for us, their sons, brothers and fathers. More women in power means better democratic outcomes for everyone. Equal pay and opportunity leads to better workplace cultures. Gender diversity in business leadership leads to more creative decision making, greater returns for organisations and more sustainable outcomes for the economy. More women means better dinner parties, better conference panels, better sport events and better peacekeeping negotiations. More girls in school means more great ideas from the next generation, and treating those ideas with equal respect means we have a greater chance of building a global society that avoids ecological damage, and works for everyone.
That’s not the world we’ve got right now.
But it is a world I’d really like to live in.