International Women’s Day: Lifetimes of change for women

March 8th, International Women’s Day (IWD), was my mother’s birthday. When she was born in Québec in 1934, women did not yet have the provincial vote. When I was four years old, it became legal in Canada to distribute birth control information, which had until that time been a criminal offence.  When I was in university in 1983, the old rape law changed to the new sexual assault law which for the first time gave women the right to say “no” in marriage. That same year, the first directive was issued to a major police force in Canada to actually charge men who physically assaulted their wives. A lot has changed since my mother’s time and in my lifetime, but not enough.

Mi’kmaw lawyer and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University Dr. Pamela Palmater marked International Women’s Day by pointing out that in Canada, 1,200 Indigenous women have been murdered or are missing, and face an increased risk of violence. Around the world, the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict is facing an uphill battle. Women like Mayerlis Angarita who speaks out against rape in Colombia, Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin and American feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian receive death threats. Hundreds of Nigerian girls captured by Boko Haram for sex have not been released. But thousands of caring men and women have taken up the challenge for the first time of ending violence against women. For example, women and men, many of whom had never protested before, flooded the streets of India in anger about the gang rapes and murders of women.

We want peace in our homes, peace in our streets, peace in our world. In 2006, female Nobel Peace Prize Laureates founded the Nobel Peace Women’s Initiative, “to magnify the power and visibility of women working in countries around the world for peace, justice and equality.” According to Nobel Peace Laureates Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Jody Williams, Betty Williams, Mairead Maguire, Aung San Suu Kyi, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman:

We believe peace is much more than the absence of armed conflict. Peace is the commitment to equality and justice; a democratic world free of physical, economic, cultural, political, religious, sexual and environmental violence and the constant threat of these forms of violence against women — indeed against all of humanity.

Economic inequality also disproportionately affects women around the world, from the enduring wage gap between women and men to the sex trafficking of women. There are now a handful of women CEOs, although not as many as men named John, but there are literally billions of women and girls in the world who toil with low wages or no wages. A recent article in the Guardian states that “If women in developing countries were paid as much as men and had equal access to the labor market, the [ActionAid] report calculates, they would make an extra $9tn [trillion] per year.” Here is a short video from the World Economic Forum about its 2014 Gender Gap Report.

International Women’s Day is about a hundred years old, its roots in the commemoration of women working with terrible wages and working conditions in factories and sweatshops in industrialized countries. The song Bread and Roses celebrates the hopes and human dignity of these women:

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,

A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,

Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,

For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,

For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;

Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead

Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.

Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.

Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.

The rising of the women means the rising of the race.

No more the drudge and idler—ten that toil where one reposes,

But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

However, this is not just a song about the past. The clothes you are wearing have probably been made by low-wage workers, primarily women and kids, in an unsafe factory working long hours without breaks. Eighty percent of the world’s garment workers are women. In 2013, the Rana Plaza, a building in Bangladesh housing several factories making clothes for profitable multinationals such as Walmart collapsed killing 1,129 people and injuring 2,515. Visit Behind the Label if you want to know more about supporting today’s garment workers.

Remarking on the results of a recent report on the status of women in 167 countries, Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka called progress in the last 20 years “unacceptably slow.” No country has achieved gender equality, and there has been some stagnation and regression in some areas. On the positive side, progress has been made in education for girls, and maternal mortality has dropped enormously.

Although that progress has clearly not been universal, I have been a direct beneficiary of the work of others for equality. My life is much freer now than it would have been 150 years ago in Canada. I may still be earning 30% less than my male counterparts, but at least I went to university, which would once have been barred to me. I can vote. I can sign legal documents, rather than have my father or husband sign for me. I can open a bank account under my own name. I can drive, unlike my sisters in Saudi Arabia. I owe so much to the many women who came before me, who paved my way. I have an obligation to pay it forward, for all the women who do not enjoy any degree of safety, economic justice or freedom in my own country and all the nations of the world.

I owe it also to my daughter. She is 10 years old. I want her to be able to study, walk on the street and sleep in her home without the risk of sexual assault. If she chooses to become a mother, I want her work to be valued and appreciated and not be stuck with the economic burden of lower wages for reproducing the next generation of citizens, workers and taxpayers. It has already taken many lifetimes to come as far as we have. It may take many more for women, girls, men and boys around the world to be safe, equal and free. Even if we never get there, every step we take toward that goal will make a difference to someone.

As Solomon Burke sang, “If one of us is chained, none of us are free.”

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