Bethany Woodhead reflects on the past year for women, what's changed, and what's still to be done
nternational Women’s Day can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century, and celebrates the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women around the world through arts performances, talks, rallies, conferences and marches. And this year’s celebration on 8 March is perhaps going to be one of the most poignant and important days in a long time.
In October 2017, an online movement known as #MeToo flooded the media following numerous allegations against Harvey Weinstein, an American film producer. It has since seen millions of women, from all social backgrounds, stepping forward to share their experience of sexual abuse, harassment and rape. Finally, it feels like we have been given a platform to reveal the horrific truths of our daily lives and we can combat our experiences while feeling safe and listened to. High-profile celebrities are using their influence to give voices to those who are too afraid to speak out and to make others aware that it’s time for change. This has in turn triggered the “Time’s Up” campaign, a defence fund set up to provide legal aid to victims of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Celebrities at the Golden Globes wore all black to advocate the movement and the 2018 Oscars were dedicated to the organisation. Many are even speaking out against POTUS who, on an Access Hollywood tape, bragged that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.” Trump has also had at least 15 women publicly accuse him of harassment and assault, with six witnesses confirming People Magazine’s Natasha Stoynoff’s accusation that Trump “pushed her against a wall, shoved his tongue in her mouth, and told her they were going to have an affair”. What kind of message does it send out to the particularly young and vulnerable when the supposed leader of the free world is a sexual predator? This International Women’s Day will serve as a meaningful and substantial reminder that we are progressing, we are supported, and we are not going to let anyone get away with this kind of behavior, no matter who they are.
However, it is important to ensure that International Women’s Day is not completely taken over by the appalling experiences of many women throughout the world. Of course, it is absolutely vital and relevant we celebrate the progress taking place in this area and praise the women who are strong enough to come forward; but it is also a day to celebrate the successes of women in sports, science, philanthropy, business, engineering, literature, arts and so much more. Official statistics provide evidence that from starting school to the end of their academic career, girls’ rate of improvement has rapidly increased over the past 50 years, and females’ levels of achievement are significantly higher than males. This is directly attributed to a number of internal and external factors: the impact of feminism from the 1960s, changes to family structures, changes in women’s employment, changing girls’ ambitions, equal opportunities policies, positive role models, teacher attention, challenging stereotypes in the curriculum and selection and league table are but a few examples that have lead to the spikes in attainment. In Sainsbury’s last week, I had tears in my eyes when I saw a stand dedicated to International Women’s Day containing children’s books directed towards female empowerment. Here are but a few titles I joyfully recorded: Great Women, A Galaxy of Her Own, We Can Do Anything, Three Cheers for Women, Smart Girls, Women in Sport, Rebel Voices, Things a Bright Girl Can Do and Girls Who Rocked the World. Unfortunately, due to factors such as the glass ceiling, women’s achievement drastically drops once leaving education and it is from here that we should look to take our next steps in improvement.
It is also important to note the key word in the name of this day: international. There have been many remarks about “white western feminists” who ignore the inequalities faced by those in developing countries. Female equality is progressing in the western world, but it is still shamefully dismal in many developing countries. Regarding education in places like India, children are unable to receive a proper education despite the fact that, in the past decade, the World Bank upgraded the country from “poor” to “middle-income”, the country has a space programme, is home to 48 billionaires and have their own aid budget. Yet the RTE Forum discovered that 60% of primaries did not have electricity and only 5% complied with all the basic standards for infrastructure. 62% of the children not in school were female and after primary school, most females are forced by family to drop out of education in order to help at home or get married.
Similarly, in Nepal, although outlawed in 2005, the centuries-old custom of Chhaupadi is highly practiced and entails banishing women on their periods to be confined to a cowshed until their menstruation is complete. Young girls, mothers, the elderly and frail… there is no escaping the “blood shaming” ritual. Women must remain in a gloomy, filthy shed which is littered with insects and animal dung for the duration of the period, and they are forbidden from entering their house, cooking, touching any family member, going to a temple or school, or eating anything but salted bread or rice. Women are also sent to the cowshed with their newborns after giving birth. In winter, the sheds are freezing and in summer, they are sweltering – thus resulting in the deaths of many infants and physical and psychological illnesses of the women sent there.
All in all, there have been numerous badass women throughout history who take the shape of empresses, warrior princesses, pirates, peasants, housewives and artists. Women have historically defied societal structures of oppression and it is the contribution of every single one of them that has led us here today. This International Women’s Day, we should celebrate collectively, as in the words of Germaine Necker de Staël: “Enlightening, teaching and perfecting women together with men on the national and individual level is the secret for the achievement of every reasonable goal, as well as the establishment of any permanent social or political relationship.” Full autonomy and equality is still a far reach away, but it is on the horizon and change is coming – for all females, everywhere.