For over a century, we have been observing International Women’s Day (IWD) as a symbolic celebration of the struggle for women’s rights. However, over the years, there has been a growing clamour about the futility of this celebration. Some feel that gender equality has already been achieved, whereas others think that celebrating IWD only alienates men and distances them from the collective fight. Let us take a moment to reflect on what we have achieved regarding women’s status in society, the struggle behind it, and the long path that still lies ahead. In doing so, we can perhaps decide on the relevance of IWD in contemporary times.
There have been many trailblazing women who have fought patriarchy and social norms to stand for women’s rights, starting from the suffragettes who tirelessly campaigned to redefine democracy and secure women’s right to vote. But they are largely side-lined – made invisible – in today’s discourse. In contrast, there are many prominent men in history who are lauded for their role in the struggle for civil rights and liberty. Abraham Lincoln is hailed as a true hero who abolished slavery and fought for equal rights, liberty, and democracy in 19th-century USA. Closer home, Mahatma Gandhi is synonymous with the non-violent independence movement in India and the fight against discrimination. The same prominence is not afforded to women’s rights movements and the powerful women who led the change in various fields of human endeavour.
How many of us have really tried to learn about movements led by influential women working to change the system? How many of us have heard of revolutionary women such as Millicent Fawcett, Pandita Ramabai, Swarnakumari Devi, Muthulakshmi Reddi, and Atiya Fyzee, to name a few? Fawcett led the biggest suffrage organisation from 1890-1919 and played a key role in gaining women the vote. Ramabai was social reformer, a pioneer in the education and emancipation of women in India. Devi was poet, playwright, lyricist, journalist, social worker and reformist, and also active in nationalist politics. Her younger brother, Rabindranath Tagore, is more famous, but she pioneered many of the literary forms he would use. Reddi was India’s first woman legislator in British India, the first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital, and the first Chairperson of the State Social Welfare Advisory Board. Fyzee was the first South Asian woman to attend the University of Cambridge, and was a writer and social reformer.
The very fact that their achievements have to be listed, instead of them being public knowledge and their names easily recognised, shows how their achievements have been ignored by the writers of history.
In science, too, silent achievement
Over a century since women secured the right to vote, the participation of women in the parliamentary process is worryingly low. The World Bank reported that although women comprise almost half of the world’s population, parliaments around the world had only around 24% female members in 2017. The Hindu Kush Himalayan region – which has immense cultural diversity and environmental importance, with one-fourth of the world’s population depending on its ecosystem – also has low women’s representation in parliament (between 8.5% to 32.70%), with Bhutan having the least, and Nepal, the most.
Women have performed remarkably well in science as well, but again – other than Marie Curie is perhaps the most renowned, being the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in different sciences (Physics and Chemistry), but there were many brilliant female scientists before her, such as Emilie du Chatelet – who added the total conservation of energy to Newtonian Physics, Caroline Herschel – a famed astronomer who discovered a number of comets, and Ada Lovelace – often described as the first computer programmer as she wrote the first algorithm for Charles Babbage’s proposed Analytical Engine. Likewise, Asian scientists such as Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, Chang Meemann, Tanzima Hashem, and Tu Youyou have also paved the way and effected meaningful discoveries, with Bandyoupadhyay’s work on algorithmic optimisation has led to the discovery of a genetic marker for breast cancer and the role of white blood cells in Alzheimer’s disease. Meemann has done pioneering work on fossil records leading to insights on how aquatic vertebrates adapted to life on land. Hashem developed that computational approaches to privacy protection, one of the most important subjects in today’s digital age, and Youyou won the Nobel Prize in 2015 for her work in medicine, and in 2017, was awarded the 2017 Preeminent Science and Technology Award, the top award for science in China.
Yet, despite such contributions, many girls still do not have access to education and are discouraged from taking up careers in science and technology. Women constitute only an estimated 30% of all researchers globally in the fields of science, technology, and innovation. According to the data released by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics in 2018, only three of 18 countries studied in Asia have an equal or above proportion of women in these fields – the Philippines (52%), Thailand (51%) and Kazakhstan (50 %); none of the HKH region countries are anywhere close to this even today.
Involvement in such fields is an important marker of progress, although it is not the only one. One remarkable piece of progress made in the HKH countries has been made in education in general where all the countries have narrowed the gender gap. According to the Global Gender Gap Report, 2018, the HKH countries had an average score of 0.95, with highest being 1 (denoting gender parity) and lowest 0 (denoting gender imparity).
There are countless women who have made incredible contributions to different facets of society but are still invisible. It is important to address this invisibility, because their accomplishments have not had the desired impact on the role and agency of women. Despite proving their capabilities are second to none, the gender gap across various sectors remains alarming.
Gendered constraints still hold women back
Women’s agency and financial autonomy are held back by gender-biased practices and policies on crucial issues such as land ownership, including inheritance. Women overcame great odds to secure the important right to hold and dispose of property on the same terms as men. Yet, a recent article circulated at the World Economic Forum showed that women own less than 20% of land globally, while it is as low as 10% in developing nations, as reported by a UN FAO survey.
Gender pay gap is a glaring issue that persists even for work of equal value, let alone through disparities that arise because of limited opportunities for women. A 2017 study by the UN reported that women around the world earn 23% less than men. Unfortunately no data exists on this specific to the HKH region. However, policies do not address the unequal power relations with men, unequal wages, and share of domestic and other work responsibilities.
The failure to address women’s basic right to dignified, independent lives is also apparent. The World Health Organisation estimates that 830 women die every day from preventable complications in childbirth; women seem to be reduced to second-class global citizens – mere vessels for giving birth and for oppression. According to the Global Gender Gap Report, 2018, the HKH countries have made notable progress in closing the gender gap in health and survival with an average score of 0.96 with highest being 1 (denoting gender parity) and lowest 0 (denoting gender imparity).
According to UNICEF, 650 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday, and UNODC reported that women and girls together account for 71% of trafficking victims. Despite the contributions that women have made in various fields, they are given limited opportunities and face more barriers to success. These obstacles are costly, not just for society but for the economy too.
So should IWD still be celebrated? Given all these pervasive gender-based inequalities prevalent and the continued invisibili-zation of women’s work even today – absolutely! A day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women is absolutely necessary so that we can bring invisible women of the past, present, and future to the forefront. More importantly, it is a reminder to everyone that we still need to fight biases, stereotypes, and discrimination to get our dues. Women may hold up half the sky, but they do so while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities. IWD is a day of reflection on the challenges ahead and a day for advocating for gender parity and a more equal world.
Chanda Gurung Goodrich and Suman Bisht are Senior Gender Specialists at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)