Why dedicate a day exclusively to the celebration of the world's women?
The United Nations General Assembly, composed of delegates from every Member State, celebrates International Women's Day to recognize that peace and social progress require the active participation and equality of women, and to acknowledge the contribution of women to international peace and security.
For the women of the world, the Day is an occasion to review how far they have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development.
You might think that women's equality benefits mostly women, but every one-percentile growth in female secondary schooling results in a 0.3 percent growth in the economy. Yet girls are often kept from receiving education in the poorest countries that would best benefit from the economic growth.
Until the men and women work together to secure the rights and full potential of women, lasting solutions to the world's most serious social, economic and political problems are unlikely to be found.
In recent decades, much progress has been made. On a worldwide level, women's access to education and proper health care has increased; their participation in the paid labor force has grown; and legislation that promises equal opportunities for women and respect for their human rights has been adopted in many countries. The world now has an ever- growing number of women participating in society as policy-makers.
However, nowhere in the world can women claim to have all the same rights and opportunities as men.
The majority of the world's 1.3 billion absolute poor are women.
On average, women receive between 30 and 40 per cent less pay than men earn for the same work.
And everywhere, women continue to be victims of violence, with rape and domestic violence listed as significant causes of disability and death among women of reproductive age worldwide.
On 8 March 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter work hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. They adopted the slogan "Bread and Roses", with bread symbolizing economic security and roses a better quality of life. In May, the Socialist Party of America designated the last Sunday in February for the observance of National Women's Day.
Following the declaration of the Socialist Party of America, the first ever National Woman's Day was celebrated in the United States on 28 February 1909. Women continued to celebrate it on the last Sunday of that month through 1913.
An international conference, held by socialist organizations from around the world, met in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1910. The conference of the Socialist International proposed a Women's Day which was designed to be international in character. The proposal initially came from Clara Zetkin, a German socialist, who suggested an International Day to mark the strike of garment workers in the United States. The proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, including the first three women elected to the parliament of Finland. The Day was established to honour the movement for women's rights, including the right to vote (known as 'suffrage'). At that time no fixed date was selected for the observance.
The declaration of the Socialist International had an impact. The following year, 1911, International Women's Day was marked for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. The date was March 19 and over a million men and women took to the streets in a series of rallies. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded the right to work and an end to discrimination on the job.
Less than a week later, on 25 March, the tragic Triangle Fire in New York City took place. Over 140 workers, mostly young Italian and Jewish immigrant girls working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, lost their lives because of the lack of safety measures. The Women's Trade Union League and the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union led many of the protests against this avoidable tragedy, including the silent funeral march which brought together a crowd of over 100,000 people. The Triangle Fire had a significant impact on labour legislation and the horrible working conditions leading up to the disaster were invoked during subsequent observances of International Women's Day.
As part of the peace movement brewing on the eve of World War I, Russian women observed their first International Women's Day on the last Sunday in February 1913. Elsewhere in Europe, on or around 8 March of the following year, women held rallies either to protest the war or to express solidarity with their sisters.
With 2 million Russian soldiers dead in the war, Russian women again chose the last Sunday in February 1917 to strike for "bread and peace". Political leaders opposed the timing of the strike, but the women went on anyway.
The rest is history: Four days later the Czar of Russia was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. That historic Sunday fell on 23 February on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia, but coincided with 8 March on the Gregorian calendar used by people elsewhere.
Since those early years, International Women's Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike.
In December 1977 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women's Rights and International Peace. Four global United Nations women's conferences have helped make the demand for women's rights and participation in the political and economic process a growing reality.
In 1975 the UN drew global attention to women's concerns by calling for an International Women's year and convening the first conference on women in Mexico City. Another convention was held in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1980.
In 1985, the UN convened a third conference on women in Nairobi, Kenya, to look at what had been achieved at the end of the decade.
In 1995, Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. Representatives from 189 different countries agreed that inequalities between women and men has serious consequences for the well-being of all people. The conference declared a set of goals for progress of women in various areas including politics, health, and education. The final document issued by the conference (called the "Platform for Action") had this to say: "The advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men are a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and should not be seen in isolation as a women's issue."
Five years later, in a 23rd special session of the United Nations General Assembly, "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century" reviewed the progress the world has made towards achieving the goals set out by the Beijing conference. This conference has come to be known as the "Beijing +5" conference. Delegates found both progress and perservering obstacles. The delegates made further agreements to continue carrying out the initiatives of the 1995 women's conference.
To discriminate is to treat people unequally or unfairly because of some reason which they cannot help, or which is not relevant to the matter in hand. For instance, to pay two people differently for doing the same job simply because one is a woman, or black, or a Muslim, or speaks with a different accent. There are other sorts of unfair discrimination - because of your religion, disability, age, because you speak a different language, or because of your political opinions.
Discrimination because of race or skin color or where ancestry originates is called racism.
Discrimination because you are male or female (your gender) is called sexism.
Discrimination often happens because people make decisions about other people which are not based on genuine reasons, ie they are prejudiced. Usually they think the other person is automatically inferior because of their race, religion or gender etc. Stereotyping is to assume that all people from a certain group or societal segment possess the same characteristics. If you hear someone say, "All (group X people) are lazy" (or noisy, or untrustworthy), that's a stereotype.
The aim of the United Nations is to help all people, individually and as groups, to be valued equally and treated fairly. The UN has produced many declarations and conventions which set people's rights .
Article 1.3 of the UN Charter provides ". . . fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion".
All of the countries which are UN members must let their citizens know these rights and how to obtain them. Knowing your rights is one step towards overcoming discrimination.
Over the past 50 years, the most progress has been achieved in securing political rights for women -- the right to vote and to be elected. Today, there are only a few countries where women cannot vote or run for public office.
It is widely believed that increasing the number of women in decision-making positions will lead to positive changes for women and society. However, even though women can run for office in most countries, their presence in government is still very low.
Consider the following:
- Only 24 women have been elected heads of state or government in this century. In 1995 there were 10 women heads of state. Although women's representation at the highest level of government is generally weakest in Asia, four of these 10 held office in this region.
- Only 14.1 percent of representatives elected to Parliaments around the world are women, up from 11.7 in 1997. The percentage of female cabinet ministers worldwide has risen from 3 in 1987 to 6.2 percent in 1996. In early 1995, Sweden formed the world's first cabinet to have equal numbers of men and women.
- Of the 189 highest ranking diplomats to the United Nations, only eleven are women.
- Almost no women served on the military staff of UN peace keeping between 1957 and 1979. In 1993, 2 percent of the military contingent of peace-keeping were women. Throughout the history of UN peace-keeping, there have been only 2 women in top decision-making positions.
It has been suggested that political systems have something unique to gain from the participation of women. Women, it is argued, have a different approach to peace and conflict resolution, so that increasing their participation in decisions concerning these issues has the potential to move political and international systems closer to peace.
For example, research in a number of countries confirms that, compared to women, men show a 10 to 15 percent greater preference for the use of military force. They also pointed to evidence that indicates women have a more cooperative style of decision-making that is not primarily based on coercion, or the use of force.
However, the experts also cautioned against jumping to conclusions. For one thing, they said, none of the research indicates that women or men are born more aggressive or peaceful than the other. They added that often bringing one or two women into high-level political positions might not have any impact on the way decisions are made. The political style only changes if women are represented in large enough numbers -- a critical mass -- estimated at a level of about 30 to 35 percent.
In war-torn countries, often a significant amount of the male population is lost to conflict. The remaining women are forced to flee to areas of safety with whatever of their family remains. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that typically 75% of displaced people due to war are women. They become both the breadwinner and primary caregiver to their families. In many countries, women are not given the training and skills needed to secure jobs that adequately provide for their family. Their dislocation often brings them to poor, insecure regions, where they no longer have access to health care, proper nutrition, or education. These women may fall further victim to systematic gender-based terrorism and violence.
- In 1994 the country of Rwanda experienced a genocide that left 300,000 parentless children. 60,000 children became the providers of their brothers and sisters. Of these 60,000 children, two thirds were young girls.
- In the aftermath of Bosnia, economic recovery is slow. Women with no work experience and little vocational training are being forced to find jobs to provide for their families. To make matters worse, women are unable to inherit land or property and married women cannot pursue employment without permission from their husbands.