Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Looking Backwards: International Women’s Day

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This year, International Women’s Day, which celebrated its 100th birthday on Sunday, also marked the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

In what is still considered the most comprehensive blueprint on advancing women’s rights, 189 governments adopted the 1995 Beijing roadmap.

Looking back at this high point in the advancement of women’s rights, the progress made in ending gender inequality is, at best, uneven. The persistence of violence against women remains a scourge across the globe.

According to the report prepared for the 54th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, “the leaders entrusted with the power to realize the promises made in Beijing have failed women and girls,” based on findings in the 167 countries surveyed.  

But did we need a UN report to reach this conclusion?

The UN’s great success in actually documenting global poverty reduction—the centerpiece of the Millennium Development Goals—reveals that specific benefits to women worldwide have been uneven.

Although the data on women in poverty are still weak, we know that in a world that has grown richer, women are the ones who remain most excluded from economic opportunities in both rural and urban areas of the developing world.

And, let’s face it: power is what the struggle for women’s equality is all about. Keeping women from school, restraining them as second-class citizens and not seeing them as persons in the eyes of the law all guarantee a life of misery, with no end in sight.

In this world of Twitter diplomacy, women have achieved a new level of attention that may actually have a negative effect as long as the visibility of heinous deeds does not come with a responsibility to change anything.

#Bringbackourgirls, the phrase used to show solidarity with the families of the young Nigerian women and girls who were kidnapped from their school by the Boko Haram group in 2014, underscores the way global attention can capture the world’s conscience when it comes to acts against women. Even First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted about this for some time.

Yet for all this activism, there has been little progress in either finding those girls or changing the way Nigeria deals with the problem of men wanting to prevent girls from getting an education. And when it comes to violence against women, there is #Indiasdaughter, the hashtag used to promote solidarity among women to protest the fatal rape that occurred in New Delhi in 2012. This horrific crime brought global attention to the plight of women in India and even more attention to the misogyny that still remains so dominant in the world’s largest democracy.

Yet there are few signs of progress in terms of women’s rights. Even a documentary film about the rape made by the BBC, India’s Daughter, scheduled to be aired in New Delhi, was censored by the government just days ago. So much for justice, not to mention freedom of speech in India today.

Or look at recent events in Turkey, where last month, a young woman who refused the advances of a minivan taxi driver was brutally murdered. The hashtag #OzgecanAslan was tweeted more than three million times and an online petition calling for the harsh punishment of her attackers gathered almost a million signatures.

Even Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has vowed to ensure that the killers receive “the heaviest penalty.” Yet the record in Turkey for prosecution of rape cases, despite the public outcries arising from this latest case, does not demonstrate any commitment to ending gender inequality any time soon.

Femicide remains a constant problem throughout Turkey, and failure to prosecute rape and other violent crimes against women is the norm.

A casual attitude toward domestic abuse is not unique to Turkey. In fact, across the Middle East, few countries even have laws that recognize the crime. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar effectively have none.

Saudi Arabia passed its first law criminalizing domestic abuse in 2013, while just last year, Lebanon passed its first domestic violence law, which enables a woman to obtain a restraining order against her assailant and calls for the establishment of shelters for victims.

In spite of the call to action two decades ago, violence against women and girls persists. Why are we still tolerating a world where the gap is not only one of gender but one of leadership when it comes to women’s rights?

It is easy to cast blame on the international bureaucrats who hide behind the metrics of improved livelihoods, more educational opportunities or poverty alleviation. But when it comes down to daily life, women are still seen as victims.

And it is precisely this approach to women as victims that continues to perpetuate inaction. Violence is a by-product of conflict. But violence is also a proxy for the chronic underinvestment in women that continues to hobble any real progress in changing attitudes about women as full members of society.

Hillary Clinton pushed the envelope in 1995 when she addressed the Beijing conference, saying that women’s rights were human rights. I am sure that when she said this, she had no idea that her own leadership would spark a global movement that she herself made a central part of our nation’s foreign policy.

Unfortunately, that attention alone is but a first step toward full empowerment.

As men and women marched on Sunday in New York City to commemorate a day dedicated to women worldwide, they again called attention to the global plight of so many women.

Let’s go beyond hashtags like #internationalwomensday, #iwd or #iwd2015 to instead find ways to put ideas into practice around the world.

The original version of this blog appeared in The Globalist.


Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Scholar-in-Residence at American University and teaches Conflict Cuisine at the School of International Service in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JohannaWonk

Tags: International Women's Day, Women's rights
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