The Wrong Way to Celebrate International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which was first celebrated in Europe. In 1975, the United Nations began celebrating 8 March as International Women’s Day, and in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions. Most countries have gone with March 8.

This isn’t a day to give women flowers or take them to lunch. It’s a day to remember that women are denied access to education, health care, income generation and life choices at a staggering rate compared to men. It’s a day to remember that women and girls are undervalued all over the world. Millions of girls are not tracked at all by their governments – there are no systems to record their birth, their citizenship, or even their identity. The 2009 World Economic Forum devoted one of its plenary sessions to the impact of educating girls in developing countries for the first time ever, and noted that only half a cent of every international development dollar currently goes toward girls.

A few days ago, word leaked that USAID is removing or watering down specific women’s rights requirements in funding proposals from organizations in Afghanistan. A senior U.S. official said in the Washington Post article, “Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities… There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.”

Women are not pet projects. Women are not pet rocks. 50% of the Afghan population are not a “special interest.”

Let’s be clear: peace and prosperity in Afghanistan is NOT possible, in the short term nor in the long term, without ambitious targets to improve the lives women, and strict requirements by those organizations receiving USAID funding to meet those targets.

USAID’s watering down of women’s rights requirements in funding programs in Afghanistan further entrenches the practice of leaving 50 percent of the population living in deplorable conditions, depriving them of education and participation in even micro enterprises like raising a GOAT. I have worked with many Afghan women, and more than a few gender specialists based in Afghanistan. To a person, they all say the same thing: reforms for women will NOT happen in Afghanistan without sustained, clearly-stated pressure from donors.

    • When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.
      (United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 1990.)
    • An extra year of primary school boosts girl’s eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent.
      (George Psacharopoulos and Harry Anthony Patrinos, Returns to Investment in Education: A Further Update, Policy Research Working Paper 2881 [Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2002].)
    • Research in developing countries has shown a consistent relationship between better infant and child health and higher levels of schooling among mothers.
      (George T. Bicego and J. Ties Boerma, Maternal Education and Child Survival: A Comparative Study of Survey Data from 17 Countries, Social Science and Medicine 36 (9) [May 1993].)
  • When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man.
    (Phil Borges, with foreword by Madeleine Albright, Women Empowered: Inspiring Change in the Emerging World [New York: Rizzoli, 2007], 13.)

Give a man to fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Teach a WOMAN to fish, you feed her FAMILY for a lifetime. Teach a woman to fish, and everyone eats.

Empowering Women Everywhere – My Favorite Resources, a list of my favorite resources for information about the empowerment of women and girls. If you are looking to educate yourself on this issue, this is where to start.

Special added bonus: A video by Daniel Craig (007), narrated by Dame Judi Dench (who I met once!). The quotes are about women and men in the UK – but apply most anywhere. Something to think about, not just on today, International Women’s Day. You’ll smile at the image – but will you also think about the statistics you are hearing?

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