Centenary Celebrations of International Women’s Day
by Elizabeth Menon
Centenary Celebrations of International Women’s Day
As we celebrate the 100th year of International Women’s Day, one needs to be clear as to what this is all about! It is a celebration of women, economic, political, social and cultural achievements of women, bygone, contemporary and future. There may be difference of opinion about how an International Women’s Day came into being, but there is a general consensus that it was originally staged against poor working conditions for women, sexual violence, discrimination and intimidation, and at the same time to draw attention to working towards better pay and voting rights – textile workers in New York staged a protest on 8 March 1857 and another protest on 19 March 1911, but finally it was decided to celebrate this prestigious event on 8 March every year. This day is an official holiday in around 15 countries, including China, Russia and Vietnam, and the US celebrates the month of March as ‘Women’s History Month’!
Celebrations take different forms all over the world, exhibitions, fund-raising, seminars, charity events, sports or cooking event, but all these festivities aim to commemorate the achievements of women all over the world. International Women’s Day is celebrated throughout UK, but University of Reading organized a seminar on 8 March: ‘Business and Pleasure’: ‘Women, work and the professionalization of farming as a female career in England’, and an exhibition from 11 January to 19 April, to coincide with the International Women’s Day: ‘Land ladies: women and farming in England, 1900-1945’, highlighting the different roles that women played in the first half of the century – the exhibition tells the story of women who have always worked in farming, though their contribution have been mostly hidden from history! Women have achieved greatness in all walks of life, and proved beyond doubt that women can do anything men can do, and much more, but the recognition and the gender equality are still evading them! There was a move to abolish International Women’s Day as women have come a long way and therefore, celebrating such a day would amount to saying that women don’t feel equal to men – but the truth is far from it – women are not given the gender equality, which is evident mostly in the field of politics, business and senior management posts!
Kathryn Bigelow was the first Woman ever to win an Oscar for the Best Director and Best film, at the 82nd Academy Awards for her film ‘The Hurt Locker’, on the eve of the 99th International Women’s Day in 2010; Halle Berry was the first black Woman to receive the Oscar for the Best Actress, for ’Monster’s Ball’ in 2001!Those women who broke the mould are surely an inspiration and it’s only just that we remember at least some of the women from India on this prestigious day: Indira Gandhi (First Woman Prime Minister), Sarojini Naidu (First Governor), Vijay Lakshmy Pandit (First Woman president of UN), Durga Khote (First Woman in Indian Cinema), Kiran Bedi (First IPS officer), Kalpana Chawla (First Indian-born Woman Astronaut), Fathima Beevi (First woman judge of the Supreme Court), Padmavathy Bandopadhyay(First Air Vice Marshal: a specialist in Aviation Medicine, who was commissioned in the IAF in 1968 after passing out of the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), Pune), Punita Arora (First Lt General in the Armed Forces, also from AFMC, first Woman Commandant of AFMC, and a Specialist in Gynaecology) -- and one should remember here Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Blackwell (First Woman Doctor), Madame Curie, Jacky Kennedy, and many more!
Atrocities are committed against women of all ages around the world and unfortunately, justice may never be served for most of these women. Trafficking for commercial and sexual exploitation or forced labour, sadly, is the new form of ‘Slavery’, and this is the fastest growing criminal activity in spite of having a ‘Trafficking Protocol’, signed by around 135 countries. 'Honour killing', bride burning, bride kidnapping, domestic violence and female infanticide are some of the brutalities that women have to endure. According to the UNICEF, more than 5000 brides are killed every year! Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is still prevalent in Africa, especially Sudan, leading to complications or even death. These women have to endure health risk, civil and human right violations and the culprits are caught only when a victim dies! Health risks include sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, Chlamydia infection, gonorrhoea, pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, cancer of cervix, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, maternal death, depression, drug abuse, and inability to lead a normal life, etc.
While we are celebrating the Centenary year of International Women’s Day, I am reminded of a 23-year-old girl who was attacked and raped while travelling in a train, who later died in a hospital and an eleven-year-old girl who succumbed to under-age child trafficking and cruelty. Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents – atrocities like these in various forms take place almost every day in our homes, streets, buses, hotels and trains. Women are exploited in forced labour in massage parlours, escort services, brothels, street prostitution and pornography. It’s not enough just to ask, “Why such barbaric incidents happen in our society”; it’s our duty to make sure that the authorities enforce the existing laws, implement the required safety measures and punish those found guilty! India has enforced laws such as Prevention of Immoral Traffic, The Sati Act and The Dowry prevention Act, but poor enforcement, ineffective punishment; corruption, and complacency make them futile!
A situation where women and children needing protection from men should not happen in any part of the world, and least of all in India, where female deities, ‘Parvathy, Lakshmy and Saraswathy’ are worshipped as goddesses! It just shows lack of morality and self-respect, and people forget their civic sense -- civic sense also includes respect towards fellow being, irrespective of their colour, gender or creed, and the willingness to help those in need. Sadly, moral decline is rampant in our country, and it's about time that we woke up to this fact and acted on it, instead of being laid back and reacting only when tragedy strikes! Indians are quite proud of their heritage and culture -- songs and poems have been written about the virtues and beauty of women and the love and respect bestowed on them, but what happens in real life is something totally different! Somehow few men in our society fail to show this respect for women and children, and the ‘Socially accepted kind of love and affection’ for women of all ages. They forget that any one of them is somebody’s daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother or even great-grandmother – even the elderly women are not spared!
In an ideal world, women should feel free to travel anywhere, any time of day or night. But we are not living in an ideal world and therefore, I feel that women and children should take more care, if at all that’s possible, especially now, when the morality is at its lowest, with the mobile phones and internet at their disposal! This is the twenty first century and women are at the forefront, holding jobs at the top levels in all walks of life, having to travel day and night and it’s about time that men accept this fact and learn to treat women with respect – I don't say this, forgetting those who do!
Women and children have to be protected by the authorities till such time when the civic sense of our people improves to respect fellow beings and help them, especially women and children and to stop looking at women of all ages as sex objects! Children should be taught this at home and at school so that when they grow into adults they know how to respect women and children and protect them when the need arises. During this prestigious time, when we celebrate the Centenary of International Women’s Day, we should be spending our time and effort to bring this change of attitude in our society, hoping for a world where women are treated with respect, and look forward to mainstreaming a gender perspective so that men and women benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated, reaching the ultimate goal of gender equality -- till then, the guilty must be punished severely, irrespective of their status in society!