International Women’s Day and the global financial crisis

March 7, 2009

sam_cook- Sam Cook is the director of the PeaceWomen Project – a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – the world’s oldest women’s peace organization founded in 1915 in the Hague. WILPF is an international non-governmental organization with national sections in 35 countries, covering all continents. Its international secretariat is based in Geneva with a New York United Nations office. The opinions expressed are her own. -

With the global financial crisis seemingly in every headline and a looming economic meltdown foremost on everyone’s minds, the observance of International Women’s Day on March 8 may not seem of immediate relevance. But it is.

Clara Zetkin, who is credited with first putting forward the idea of an international women’s day in 1910, would likely have a lot to say about where we are today. She and other committed socialists of the women’s and the peace movements in the U.S. and Europe whose work inspired this Women’s Day would probably not be entirely surprised at what the dominant economic and political power ideologies of the last century have delivered.

Of course International Women’s Day has grown beyond its working class roots in the early 1900′s. Alongside the women’s movement, we see now that global corporations and governments actively claim support of the day and its celebrations. The official website of International Women’s Day claims this fact as a positive achievement. But, as someone who considers herself part of the peace and women’s movements, this causes me no small measure of discomfort and adds to my mixed emotions about the day.

It is not that I don’t appreciate the power and significance of an international day of observance of work for women’s empowerment and gender equality. It is not that I think we have no need of attention to these issues. It is not that I feel that all the important achievements are the ones behind us – as the bumper sticker pinned above my desk reads, “I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy.” No, I believe that International Women’s Day is an important reminder of the work that still needs to be done and it is certainly a powerful moment of solidarity across time and space.

It is fortifying to work with a sense of common cause with women from places as diverse as the cities of Latin America, the hamlets of Europe, the suburbs of North America and the villages and sprawling urban centres across Africa. It is inspiring to know that this work on a wide range of issues – from equal pay for equal work; to access to reproductive health services; and ending violence against women – is building on the work of generations of women before us. These are all reasons that make International Women’s Day a day worth celebrating. But they are also the reasons that I want to reclaim the day. Reclaim it back from the hands of empty ritual and rhetoric and from those that treat it like another public relations opportunity.

I’m not saying that governments and corporations don’t do “good things” or that they don’t invest in gender equality and women’s empowerment. But, when one looks at the bigger picture – including that revealed by this global financial crisis – those efforts seem less laudable. As with so many things, it is hard to get the true picture and see where priorities lie until you do the comparisons and look at the numbers.

As tax payers in the U.S. are aghast at upwards of $700 billion dollars going to “bail out” the financial system, little is said of the fact that this figure is also the approximate annual military budget of the U.S. Global military spending currently exceeds $1,204 billion dollars annually at 2006 prices. The combined budgets of the United Nations entities working on women’s issues amounts to approximately 0.005 percent of that.

The World Bank estimates the cost of interventions to promote gender equality under Millennium Development Goal 3 (universal access to education) to be $7-$13 per capita. The world’s military expenditure in 2006? $184 per capita. This is the financial crisis. That investing in weapons and war and creating human insecurity is prioritized over investing in peace, development and gender equality. This is what we should be questioning and working to change as we stand together on International Women’s Day. And if the governments and corporations of the world really want to show their support for this day, then ending militarism would be a good place to start.

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