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It is the morning of 2017’s International Women’s Day, and, happily, I have already been reminded of that fact by news websites, radio features, an announcement at the top of my social media feed, and even the ‘doodle’ my internet search engine has chosen to display.

Jennifer Gilmour The origins of International Women’s Day, celebrated each year on 8th March, flow as far back as 1909. From Americans that year commemorating the preceding year’s powerful female garment workers’ strike, to Germans and Brits pushing for women’s right to vote in 1914, to Russian women striking against World War I and food shortages in 1917, to recognition of an official half-day holiday for women in China in 1949, it has not passed without impact over the years. Its popularity was enhanced from 1977, when the United Nations General Assembly designated 8th March the celebratory day for women’s rights and world peace, and the UN now provides an official annual theme for each IWD.

From “World Free of Violence Against Women” in 1999, to focus on the impact of HIV/Aids in 2004, to “Women in Decision-making” in 2006, to “Equal Access to Education, Training, and Science and Technology” in 2011, to “Planet 50-50 by 2030” in 2016, the UN themes highlight important issues of continuing relevance.

Crucially, the issues span all countries, not only those in which women are treated by law and culture as inferior, but also those in which women have achieved equality before the law, but the reality (whether in boardroom representation, areas of education and training, societal child-care expectations, or political influence) still leaves much to be desired.

“Is it still relevant today?” The question, whether the result of ignorance, denial or even misunderstanding - on the part of those so fortunate in their own lives that they lack understanding of the bigger picture - might be asked. In response, consider some facts:

1)    In numerous countries it remains entirely legal for a husband to rape his wife (and not vice versa). Examples are India, the Bahamas and Singapore, but marital rape only became a crime for couples living together in Scotland in 1989 (in the case S v HM Advocate), so we should not be complacent about our progress.
2)    In Nigeria, a man can legally assault his wife without facing prosecution if no “grievous” harm results.
3)    In Afghanistan, a husband can, legally and without the risk of equivalent restriction himself, restrict his wife’s right to leave the home. Similarly, in Yemen, a wife’s movements outside the home can legally be restricted by her husband.
4)    In Pakistan, in certain civil court matters, evidence provided by a woman is worth half that provided by a man.
5)    In Saudi Arabia, women are prohibited from driving and from obtaining driving licences.
6)    In Israel, divorces can only take place if requested by the husband, not the wife.

On home soil, although now gratefully separated from actively anti-female laws, the UK is nonetheless a country which, in mid-2015, hosted a population of 32.1 million males (49.3%) and 33.0 million females (50.7%) (source: ONS), with that ratio far from reflected in many of our elected houses, professions, celebrated sports and boardrooms. The UK Parliament continues to be disproportionately dominated by men. In 2015 there were, astoundingly, more men named John in charge of FTSE100 companies than there were women. Despite established equal pay legislation, there remains a marked gender pay gap. There is - for the foreseeable future, at least - still considerable work to be done.

Whilst it might be argued that an international celebration of what has been and what is hoped for will struggle in itself to effect change to the likes of the darkly discriminatory practices listed above, IWD serves as an annual reminder to us all of progress made and, far more importantly, progress still to be made. Indeed, the day is now a national holiday in a plethora of countries of vastly differing sizes, wealth situations, and levels of gender equality progress worldwide.

If the publicity and sheer people-power IWD attracts causes biased attitudes to be questioned, gender equality to be promoted anew, positive action to be considered, lessons to be learned from one country to another, change - even incremental change - must follow. The power of a vocal population majority should not be underestimated, and that renders IWD a very worthwhile celebration indeed.

The official 2017 theme is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”, but the 2017 campaign hashtag #BeBoldForChange has also been framed: a welcome reminder that change (particularly that achieved now but pushed and protested for by our predecessors) does not happen automatically.

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Blog by Jennifer Gilmour

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