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Women's Day Celebrates 90 Years

Women's Day Celebrates 90 Years

US State Dept backgrounder

Tue, 6 Mar 2001 19:45:14 -0500

Backgrounder: International Women's Day Celebrates 90 Years

(Continues the quest for equality for women in all areas) (1900)
By Deborah M.S. Brown
Washington File Staff Writer

March 8 is the 90th anniversary of International Women's Day,
which was first celebrated March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark,
Germany and Switzerland. According to a U.N. chronology, more
than one million women and men attended rallies to mark the
occasion then, calling for the right of women "to vote and to
hold public office, the right to work, to vocational training
and to an end to job discrimination."

From those early years, International Women's Day has grown into
the international women's movement, which has been strengthened
by four global United Nations women's conferences. Each has
helped make the commemoration a rallying point for coordinated
efforts to demand women's social, political and economic rights.
Women around the world continue to celebrate International
Women's Day, and in many countries it is a national holiday.

This year in the United States, President Bush has proclaimed
the entire month of March as Women's History Month, and
celebrations commemorating the struggle for equality will take
place throughout the country. For example, Chicago is hosting a
conference March 10 to look at how the women of that city have
advanced in their everyday lives and also to look at what still
needs to be done.

In countries like South Africa, the constitution specifically
guarantees women's rights to human dignity, freedom and
equality. And in keeping with its commitment to women, the
government of South Africa has ratified numerous U.N.
conventions, among them, the Convention on the Elimination of
all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); the Convention on
Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration
of Marriage (CCM); the Convention Relating to the Status of
Refugees/Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR); and
the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and
the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (CSTPEP). In
1996, South Africa also ratified the African Charter on Human
and Peoples' Rights, a convention adopted by the Organization of
African Unity (OAU).

Although South Africa is generally the exception when it comes
to championing women's rights constitutionally, the women of
that country say they still have a long way to go before they
can enjoy all rights in reality, such as the ability to live
without the fear of violence against them, or the destitution of

Just how far have women around the globe come in their struggle
for equal rights with men?

Since the 1993 Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, "Women's
Rights are Human Rights!" has been a rallying cry for women
worldwide. Every major international human rights treaty
explicitly prohibits discrimination against women, and yet,
statistics show that women are treated as second-class citizens
in most areas of life. For example:

-- Violence against women both in and out of the home has
reached epidemic proportions worldwide. UNICEF's May 2000
edition of Innocenti Digest, titled "Domestic Violence Against
Women and Girls" reported that domestic violence against both
young and old female citizens is "present in every country,
cutting across boundaries of culture, class, education, income,
ethnicity and age." Such violence also includes the trafficking
of women and girls, which remains a serious problem in many
parts of the world, particularly in Southeast Asia.

-- The U.N. cites that women contribute up to 70 percent of
their local and national economies, but receive less than 10
percent of the world's income. The Afghan Taliban, for example,
has restricted women from working outside the home except in
very limited circumstances such as in health care and
humanitarian assistance. According to 1997 statistics, the
majority of women worldwide earn about three-fourths of the pay
of males for the same work outside of the agricultural arena, in
both developed and developing countries. And women in rural
areas produce more than 55 per cent of all food grown in
developing nations.

-- Although women make up half the world's population, they
account for only 5 to 10 percent of formal political leadership
positions worldwide. In January 2001, the highest court in
Kuwait dismissed a case seeking to grant women the right to vote
and to run for office. Judge Abdullah Issa, president of the
Constitutional Court, stated that women's "rights are denied"
under the current law until the legislature amends it.

-- According to a U.N. fact sheet, two-thirds of the world's
nearly one million-million illiterate people are women.
Sixty-six percent of the world's 130 million children who are
not in school are girls. And during the past 20 years, the
combined primary and secondary school enrollment ratio for girls
in developing countries has increased only 40 percent.

Yet men and women of good will around the world continue to
press for better conditions for women across the board.

At the Fourth U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995,
delegates from 189 countries established the Beijing Declaration
and Platform for Action, which stated: "Women's poverty is
directly related to the absence of economic opportunity and
autonomy, lack of access to economic resources, including
credit, land ownership and inheritance, lack of access to
education and support services and their minimal participation
in the decision-making process. Poverty can also force women
into situations in which they are vulnerable to sexual

In 1996, a landmark decision in U.S. courts ruled that fear of
female genital mutilation (FGM) can be grounds for granting
asylum to the United States. The ruling was put to the test in
1997, when Adelaide Abankwah fled her native Ghana in fear of
FGM and sought asylum in the U.S. After two years of legal
battles, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals in August 1999
granted her asylum after a federal court in New York decided
that she had a "well-founded fear of being subjected to FGM" if
returned to her homeland.

As a result of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,
in 1998, the United Nations adopted a treaty to establish an
International Criminal Court (ICC), whose purpose if it becomes
operational would be to hear cases of genocide, other crimes
against humanity and war crimes. The court's mandate explicitly
lists rape and other forms of sexual abuse including enforced
prostitution, forced pregnancy and sexual slavery as crimes
against humanity when "they are committed as part of a
widespread or systematic attack directed at any civilian

On February 23 of this year in The Hague, the International
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted
three Bosnian Serbs of the rape, torture and sexual enslavement
of Muslim women during the Bosnian war. The crimes took place in
the town of Foca, southeast of Sarajevo, in 1992 and 1993, at
the height of Bosnia's ethnic conflict. It is estimated that
tens of thousands of rapes took place during the war in Bosnia.
The February verdict was a stunning victory for women's human
rights, because it was the first time an international tribunal
had ruled that rape is indeed a "crime against humanity."

In October 1999, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the
21-article Optional Protocol to CEDAW and called on its members
to become party to the new instrument as soon as possible. The
Optional Protocol is significant for a number of reasons. It
reaffirms existing remedies available under other international
human rights instruments, and advances the development of
international human rights law, incorporating practices
developed by international monitoring mechanisms over the last
30 years. The Protocol entered into force in December 2000.

In assessing the effectiveness of the new Protocol, Angela King,
assistant secretary-general and special adviser to the
secretary-general on gender issues and advancement of women,
said the new Optional Protocol "provides an international remedy
for violations of women's rights," by acting as an incentive for
governments to take a fresh look at the means currently
available to women at the domestic level to enforce their
rights. King added that such action at the national level of
governments would create an environment for women and girls to
fully enjoy all their human rights, and it would also allow
their grievances to be addressed with "the efficiency and speed
they deserved."

In June 2000, the United Nations General Assembly held a special
session entitled "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and
Peace for the 21st Century," which was also known as "Beijing
plus 5" to commemorate the five years that had passed since the
Fourth Women's World Conference.

Women 2000 gave priority to 12 critical areas that should
receive attention on the world stage: poverty; education and
training; health; violence against women; women and armed
conflict; the economy; power and decision-making; institutional
mechanisms for the advancement of women; human rights; the
media; the environment; and the girl child.

The special session provided a snapshot of the status of women
at the turn of the 21st century in terms of both achievements in
the past five years and the obstacles that need to be overcome.
It also suggested almost 200 measures that international
institutions, governments, the private sector and
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can take either alone or in
partnerships to secure women's equality.

But despite the almost global reaction to Women 2000 and past
conferences, protocols and other U.N., government and NGO
participatory bodies, many women are impatient at the slow rate
of their sex to gain even the most basic human rights. They are
upset, and to paraphrase a popular American movie of the 1980s,
"they're not going to take it anymore."

So much so, that in Ireland in 1999 women called for a general
strike in that country. On International Women's Day 2000, the
first-ever Global Women's Strike called on women everywhere to
lobby for a "millennium that values all women's work and all
women's lives" and an end to "no pay, low pay and overwork."
Women from 60 nations participated, leaving behind "diapers and
vacuum cleaners, computer screens, farm work and factory lines
for protests and celebrations speak-outs and marches."

And they are not done. A second Global Women's Strike is called
for March 8, 2001, and women around the world are once again
demanding the most fundamental of rights, including "payment for
all caring work in wages, pensions, land and other resources;
pay equity for all, women and men, in the global market;
accessible clean water, health care, housing, transport,
literacy; protection and asylum from all violence and
persecution, including by family members and people in positions
of authority; and abolition of Third World debt, which falls
heaviest on women and girls."

Despite the threat of strike by half the world's population,
however, everyone must continue to work together to see that
women gain these and all rights of equality.

Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said
it best when she gave an address on International Women's Day in
1998. She said: "Women throughout the world have found that
Declarations and Conventions are not enough to guarantee their
human rights. It is past time to move from fine words to firm
action by international organizations, national and local
governments and civil society to ensure that the rights of women
everywhere are fully honored."


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