First and foremost, Happy International Women’s Day 2013! Since its birth during the Socialist movement, IWD has grown to become a global day of recognition and celebration across developed and developing countries alike. It has been officially recognised since 1975 when the United Nations gave official sanction to, and started sponsoring it on the 8th March each year.
So…why dedicate a day exclusively to the celebration of the world’s women?
The United Nations states that, “In adopting its resolution on the observance of Women’s day, the General Assembly cited two reasons: to recognise the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security.”
I believe that for myself and for the women of the world, the Day’s symbolism has a wider meaning: It is an occasion to review how far they have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development. It is also an opportunity to unite, network and mobilize for future meaningful change.
Each year carries a specific theme, these have ranged from 2004’s “women and HIV/AIDS” to the 2012 theme of “Empowering rural women, ending poverty and hunger”
2013 sees us confront the issue of hostility and oppression with the theme “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women”
On 16th December 2012 Jyoti Singh was abducted by six men on a bus in Delhi, she was beaten and sexually attacked. The rape that she suffered was so brutal she later died in hospital from her injuries. The main cause of her death was internal organ damage, caused by an iron rod which they used to sexually abuse her. It is difficult to even type that sentence, never mind racking your brain to even try to comprehend the unimaginable horror that woman suffered. The initial worldwide uproar was a reaction to not only the extremely violent nature of the attack but also the government’s weak response in the aftermath of what happened. What the attack did was shine a light on India’s deep rooted and entrenched misogyny. It further highlighted the social and political hurdles that Indian women face on a daily basis. In India female foetuses are often aborted and baby girls killed after birth, leading to an appallingly skewed gender ratio. Many of those who survive face discrimination, prejudice, violence and neglect all their lives, as single or married women. If a woman is considered as vain or uncooperative she faces reprisal such as an acid attack or a beating. Jyoti Singh’s ‘crime’ was that she was accompanied to the cinema by a man who was not her husband.
But this is not a problem which is specific to India and it would disastrous for us to label such atrocities as particular to one country. How easy it would be to neatly box up those issues and consider them as someone else’s problem.
In the UK, Katie Piper became a high profile figure in the battle against violence when she suffered a vicious acid attack in 2008. The attack destroyed all of the tissue on her face, leaving her permanently disfigured and blind in her left eye. As a result of what happened Katie was transformed from a sociable and confident 25 year old to a withdrawn and depressed recluse, all by an ex-boyfriend who could not control his violent and jealous tendencies towards women.
The Katie Piper attack was particularly shocking to people in the UK because the victim was a white middle class British woman. This story seemed to invade people lives in a way that previous attacks hadn’t. The brutality and inhumanity of it occupied your living room as you watched the 6 o’clock news and it made your early morning cup of coffee that wee bit harder to swallow as you read the morning newspaper. This hadn’t happened in an unfamiliar place with a different language and a foreign outlook. It happened on our doorstep in North London, that cosmopolitan hub of opportunity and equality.
Since the attack and consequent media coverage of the incident Katie Piper has become something of a heroine. After suffering the dark enduring months of reconstructive surgery she has achieved a sort of confidence she never thought she could recapture. She is successfully pursuing a TV career and has established the Katie Piper foundation.
So maybe that is what I will take away from this year’s International Women’s Day. I will say a silent prayer for those who have and who will continue to fall victim to oppression and violence because of their gender and I will also celebrate those women who successfully cast their victim status. Whether is it women in India rallying against an archaic government, or a British woman refusing to be defined by her attack.
My very first introduction to IWD was in 2010. I was fortunate enough to be visiting family in New York and was encouraged to go to the United Nations headquarters in East Manhattan to listen to the speeches that day with a family member who worked in the building. The room was filled with a multitude of women from different backgrounds, social experiences, ages and religions. I distinctly remember a speech from a Congolese woman. She was about the same age as my mum and she recounted stories of violence, rape, torture and abuse. These experiences were so foreign and shocking to me that I realised I could never relate to the suffering of these women, and how incredibly lucky that made me.
That speech will continue to shape my actions and opinions towards women’s issues for the rest of my life. In the years since I first heard that woman speak, the exact stories she told have melted away in my memory (it’s interesting how your brain tries to block those things out) but what has stayed with me is her undeniable bravery. I remember how clearly and powerfully she spoke, she did not bow her head or avoid your gaze, instead she commanded the attention of a filled room and spoke with passion and dignity.
That was because this woman refused to be a victim, and instead chose to be a survivor. She didn’t travel nearly 10,000 miles for our sympathy but instead for our education.
So today I challenge all of you to choose one woman who inspires you. It could be your mum who raised a family while working full time because she had to, an aunt who overcame cancer or a friend who battled through a hard time in their life with grace and self respect. Today, of all days, is the time to celebrate these wonderful people who shape and influence our lives.
HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!!!