International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrated every year on 8th March, was the brainchild of Clara Zetkin, leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany. In 1910, she suggested an annual Women’s Day for women worldwide to celebrate their achievements and mobilise to make the case for labour rights and better working conditions.
Over the years the Day has proved hugely successful, growing from its roots in the socialist movement to become a global day of celebration and recognition. IWD was formally recognised by the United Nations in 1975. Today, it’s a national holiday in more than 25 countries, from Afghanistan and Cuba to Zambia. It’s a day when women’s successes are recognised and celebrated, regardless of ethnic, cultural, economic or political differences.
It’s also an occasion for reflecting on past challenges and acknowledging the tremendous progress towards equal rights and women’s participation and, even more importantly, for highlighting the struggles women in different parts of the world still face today. Over a century on from the early 1900’s when a women’s day was first celebrated, the world is a very different place. In the UK alone, women have gained the right to vote, seen education and age old professions like medicine open up, and benefited from a framework of legislation to protect against sex and pay discrimination. As we approach 8 March, we hope to see ground-breaking legislation, currently under debate in the Welsh Assembly, passed next week that would put Wales at the forefront of global efforts to eradicate domestic abuse, sexual violence and all forms of violence against women.
From the WI’s early days, members have campaigned on a wide range of social, political and economic challenges faced by women. Yet barriers remain that prevent us achieving gender equality.
In June 1943, WI members passed a resolution calling for men and women to receive equal pay for equal work, yet women continue to be fighting for equal pay with female graduates typically paid less than men, an income gap that continues into retirement.
Early WI resolutions passed in the 1920s highlighted the importance of women playing a prominent role in public life. West Suffolk federation’s 1921 resolution urged WIs to ‘educate members in the powers of the Parish Councils, Rural District Councils and County Councils with a view to getting local women on all these bodies.’ Despite their efforts, women remain chronically under-represented in political and public life at all levels. While there are now more female MPs than ever before, women still make up under a quarter of the House of Commons. With only one female judge on the Supreme Court and few female High Court judges, it’s clear that women have even less say in implementing the laws than in making them.
In 1975 WI members began campaigning to tackle violence against women. Today the scale of abuse remains staggering; official data suggests around 1.2 million women suffered domestic abuse last year. One in four women will experience domestic violence at the hands of a partner during their lives.
So while tremendous advances have been made, gender equality remains far from a reality for women in the UK and our sisters around the world. Let’s take the time to take stock this weekend and continue working together to improve all women’s rights. How are you celebrating international women’s day and the women in your life this weekend?