A Blog Post on International Women’s Day by Forest Whitaker
On March 8, the world becomes effervescent with celebrations for International Women’s Day. Leaders from governments, companies, and nonprofits join a movement that has become truly universal over the course of the past decades. International Women’s Day matters for everyone indeed.
This is, first, a day to highlight some inconvenient facts. We know that one woman in three has experienced various forms of gender-based violence that too many societies continue to consider as private or minor issues, notably when a husband sexually abuses his wife or when a man verbally abuses a woman on the street or in the workplace. In some countries, the abuses are nearly unthinkable, when baby girls are killed or women married by force and often, shockingly, as early as 10 or 11 years old. Adding injury to insult, many of these will be forced to bear children at 12 or 13.
In truth, though, no country, be it rich or poor, can claim to have genuinely achieved gender equality. Income imbalances are still a reality in all the countries of the world. Women earn less than men globally – nearly 25% less. This does not even reflect the disproportionate amount of unpaid work that they perform for their families and communities. A great deal of violations can happen precisely because power is still to a large extent a male prerogative. Currently, only 21 of the 193 countries recognized by the UN are led by a female Head of State or Head of Government. As of 2019, less than 25 percent of parliamentarians are women. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence that women have been disproportionately suffering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I could go on for pages, quoting fact after fact showing that women are less considered, less respected, and less recognized than they should. But the point of International Women’s Day is not to equate women with “less”. International Women’s Day is not about the victimization of women. Portraying women solely as victims would actually strengthen the patriarchal prejudice which obfuscates that women are agents, doers, and makers.
We should remember that International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 because of two women’s movements that happened a few years apart on that same day in two different countries. The first movement took place in 1909 in New York City, when 15,000 women demonstrated to protest their long work hours, low pay, and the lack of voting rights in New York City. The second movement saw Russian women taking opportunity of the Russian Revolution to march the streets on the March 8, 1917, and ask for change, an initiative that led to the granting of voting rights to the female citizens of this country. International Women’s Day is about human beings who have to fight twice as hard for their rights. The reality is that women are resilient, determined, and strong.
The theme identified by the United Nations for International Women’s Day this year is “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights”, which invites us to reflect on this long struggle that is central to the mandate of my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI). As CEO of this peacebuilding organization with programs on the ground, I have learned key facts from my firsthand experiences: while conflict exacerbates the indignities suffered by women, peace processes are, however, more likely to succeed when women participate in them as leaders and drivers of the agenda. Fostering women’s rights and empowering them paves the way to peace and sustainability.
WPDI therefore works to protect the basic rights of women. This means, for example, that we strive to increase girls’ access to education, as we do through our scholarship program at the Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement. This is a program designed for boys and girls but, because many families traditionally tend to focus resources on boys, it significantly boosts girls’ access to education. Working for basic rights also allows us to address gender-based violence, an epidemic that has crippled the development of humanity for millennia, with a hidden cost in terms of lives lost and lasting traumas. Last year, upon noticing that the lockdown measures with regards to COVID-19 had significantly heightened the cases of violence against women in fragile communities in Cape Town, South Africa, local authorities asked our youth leaders to organize dialogues and workshops aimed at informing inhabitants and transforming attitudes and behaviors.
But, in the spirit of March 8, supporting basic rights can only be the beginning of the story. As any other human beings, women do not have a mere right to be protected from abuse; they have a right to the pursuit of happiness. This is WPDI’s highest objective. This year for International Women’s Day, we have chosen to highlight the amazing potential of young women. Throughout the year, they demonstrate that women are powerful, as Fabiola, who helps indigenous women from her native Chiapas recognize their own power. Their ambition is to prove that women are leaders, that they can, like Magdalena in South Sudan, represent people and use their voices. Their achievements make it clear that women are impactful, as evidenced in Uganda by Joyce who won a local election, still reveling in the fact that a young woman could beat two older men based on her merits. In sum, WPDI helps women exercise their right to be heroes, to be there for everyone as claimed by Khadija, one of our women peacemakers from South Africa.
In 2021, WPDI will continue to empower women as changemakers. I am deeply satisfied, in this respect, to have renewed our partnership with UN Women in South Sudan. We are joining forces again to train young women as Peace Ambassadors whom we will support as they disseminate a culture of peace in their communities and sensitize national and international organizations on the situations faced by women in the most conflict-affected areas of the country. I place great hopes in that type of collaborations as they manifest that the power of women is growingly recognized for its effectiveness. Looking back at these women of 1909 and 1917, we measure that our dream for gender equality is still largely an ideal, but it is one worth fighting for.
Watch and share our International Women’s Day video featuring four amazing women from our programs in Africa and America: