Re-energising for change on Women’s Day

February 27, 2009

Annette Lawson- Annette Lawson is chair of National Alliance of Women’s Organisations in Britain. She has an OBE for services to diversity and is founder and Chair of The Judith Trust, which works for better lives for people with both learning disabilities and mental illness needs. Any opinions expressed are her own. -

International Women’s Day on March 8 has a contested history. Perhaps beginning with a protest of women textile and shirt makers in New York in 1857, perhaps arising from the Socialist movement in Russia, it has been marked by women more recently all over the world both to express solidarity and sisterhood and to demand afresh every year that women’s human, political and civil rights be recognised and achieved. Some might wish to argue there is no need for such an event, nor for women’s demands. In this case, ignorance brings no bliss.

Violence in the form of rape – wars increase rape many times and atrocities are being committed daily in the Congo as I write – domestic violence; female genital mutilation; sexual assault; pornography; trafficking for sexual exploitation; forced marriage; traditional rights of rape and forced re-marriage of widows; prostitution – a long litany of gender based violence is the major, continuing global affront to women. Murder by a husband or male partner is a common cause of murder of women in the UK.[1] If you are not dead, all of these assaults also lead to serious health problems for women and girls.

Then everywhere the ‘gender pay gap’ keeps women in less well rewarded positions than men and helps to make the climb out of poverty more difficult; women are in any case poorer globally than men and still in many parts of the world have no rights to land ownership or to their own property – nor even to their children. In parts of the world, women’s movement is severely restricted; education is denied to the girl child and there are still many women who may not choose how or whether to earn a livelihood, to be economically independent, whether or not to marry, or whether or not to bear children.

The numbers of women in leadership positions, despite advances sometimes in unexpected places – Rwanda for instance has near equal representation in Parliament – in local or central governments; in diplomacy; in business and entrepreneurship; in schools, hospitals – indeed anywhere – is still ludicrously low. In the UK Parliament less than 20% of MPs are women, although in Wales the new Assembly achieved 50%.

These overall damaging inequalities between women and men are even more marked for specific groups of women – in the UK, for example, one study shows women from Bangladesh the poorest of the poor;[2] women with learning disabilities are even more likely to suffer sexual assault and bullying than others; Roma women are especially disadvantaged throughout Europe. So race, ethnicity, age, disability also play into the forms of discrimination experienced and its severity.

This week and next (March 2-13) the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at its annual review of progress globally in achieving women’s equality, will examine equality in care-giving in the scourge of HIV/AIDS while its sub-theme is decision-making at all levels. And there will be a new emerging theme – ‘gender perspectives on the global financial crisis’. One of the most dangerous problems is that law makers everywhere (researchers and journalists too) tend to talk of ‘people’ or ‘Americans’, for example, and not of ‘women and men’; ‘boys and girls’; ‘American men’ or ‘American women’, thus obliterating the fundamental gender differences of everyday life, leading to an inadequate analysis of the problem and, in so doing, to the ignoring of solutions. At least at CSW, this error is not made.

I do not doubt we need to celebrate March 8 as International Women’s Day. We need to sing and to dance, to re-energise for the essential changes required. And to drown the screams.


[1] According to the Homicide Index, between 1995 and 1999, 44 per cent of all female homicide victims in England and Wales – and 50 per cent of those killed by men – were killed by a current or former sexual partner. This compares to just seven per cent of all male victims.

[2] From Fawcett briefing:

‘ Ethnic minority women are disproportionately likely to be living in poverty. However, there are stark differences in poverty rates by ethnic group. Whilst two fifths of Asian and black women live in poverty, twice the proportion of white women, poverty extends to almost two thirds of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women.’

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