March 8, 2010 marks the 99th International Women’s Day (IWD). Around the world, people will take this opportunity to celebrate the courageous women, past and present who have worked to ensure equal rights and equal opportunity for all.
International Women’s Day began in 1911, as women workers organized and demanded safer working conditions and better pay. Realizing that meaningful change would only happen if they had a political voice, they fought for and won the right to vote. Women and their advocates continue to work towards having an equal voice, equal representation in public life.
As we celebrate women’s courage and tenacity, we recognize that we still have a long way to go. According to Oxfam Canada, of the 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty worldwide, 70 % are women and girls. Systemic gender discrimination – the denial of women’s basic human rights – is a major cause of poverty. As long as women are poor and do not have access to education they will be vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
It takes courage to challenge the powers that profit from maintaining the inequalities in our world. Sometimes under extremely dangerous conditions, women of courage and determination are standing up to the individuals, institutions and regimes that stubbornly uphold the status quo. Women the world over are emerging as leaders in every sphere of human activity.
The Canadian theme of International Women’s Day 2010 is Strong Leadership, Strong Women, Strong World. We certainly witnessed this at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, where female athletes “owned the podium”, winning half the gold medals and over 55% of Team Canada’s overall medals. (Congratulations to all and especially PEI’s Heather Moyse!) This great showing was achieved with fewer opportunities for women athletes. Remember that, even faced with strong protest, the International Olympic Committee would not allow the female ski jump event to take place.
It has taken over a century to come even close to equality in the Olympics. The first modern Olympics in 1896 offered no competitions for women and it wasn’t until 1981 that a woman was allowed to serve on the International Olympic Committee. There is still a great deal of work to be done to ensure that women from every country have the same support as their male counterparts.
International Women’s Day began in the labour movement and 99 years later we are still faced with issues that impact our full participation in the work world. And once again it takes courage to speak out against what one sees as a violation of human rights. Recently, Yogi Fell and her co-workers challenged UPEI’s forced retirement policy, resulting in a Human Rights Commission decision that this policy is discriminatory.
Let us be inspired by the courage and perseverance of all who have worked to create a world of equal opportunity. And let us celebrate and have some fun!
Happy International Women’s Day!
Isabelle Christian, PEI Status of Women Council Chairperson