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Eleonora Esposito, Marie Curie Research Fellow at Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra
Why we still need a World Women's Day
For more than 100 years, International Women's Day (IWD) has been commemorated on March 8 to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women who have overcome gender barriers in all aspects of society.
One apocryphal myth dates back to the garment workers' strike in New York City on March 8, 1857, when thousands of women marched through the city to protest their deplorable conditions at work. While this myth about its origin has been refuted, the history of the IWD cannot be separated from the history of the labor and women's rights movements that developed in parallel and rapidly during the second industrial revolution in Europe and the U.S. On the occasion of the International Women Workers' International congress in 1910, German socialists Clara Zetkin and Luise Zietz proposed the celebration of an annual day as a strategy for promote equal rights for women, with a strong emphasis on universal suffrage. The first IWD was held the following year and women have since gathered at rallies, networking events, congresses and marches around the world.
With women's suffrage achieved in countries around the world at various times, IWD has become a day to reflect on gender equality in a broader sense, forcing us to recognize the extent to which gender discrimination still persists today. Figures show that, globally, women do not have equal access to Education, health care, employment and representation in political and economic decision-making processes. Even when they have work, the wage gap phenomenon affects women disproportionately, not only because they earn average less than men, but also because they spend more time on unpaid work , such as caring for children or dependents. This discouraging scenario can be even worse for women belonging to minority groups or living in countries at development, as gender discrimination always lies at the intersection of various Structures of power, such as age, race/ethnicity and social class .
Compared to men, women also suffer disproportionately from different forms of violence and harassment, ranging from psychological violence to sexual abuse, from domestic violence to hostility on social networks. In particular, gender discrimination in the online world has emerged in recent years as a new and subliminal form of digital divide, which has the potential to reduce equality and inclusiveness in the cybersphere. The Internet has become the new frontier for spreading hatred against women and social networks show their potential to act as a real force multiplier, due to the sheer quantity and virulence of interactions. A 2014 European Union survey found that one in ten women in the European Union acknowledges having suffered cyberstalking since the early age of 15: unwanted and sexually explicit emails or mobile messages of an offensive nature, or offensive and inappropriate insinuations on social networks.
Digital misogyny seems to be particularly fierce against those highly visible and successful women who are trying to strengthen their participation in political and institutional processes. As they progress in a public sphere traditionally associated with power and authority (and, by default, hegemonic masculinity), women often feel unwelcome in leadership roles. In the age of the participatory web, politicians make extensive use of social networks to interact with the electorate and communicate their political proposals and visions. Unfortunately, women politicians' social media profiles are often peppered with sexist insults and threats that cause them personal and professional harm, limit their freedom of expression, and represent a serious impediment to the advancement of their political diary . Social media attacks are so common for women politicians that they can intimidate and deter them from running for office, advocates and lawmakers say.
Last year's IWD celebrations were marked by the global surfacing of sexual abuse and harassment cases that had long remained hidden: starting with film producer Harvey Weinstein, relevant men from prominent sectors around the world (such as fashion, music, art and politics) were denounced for sexual misconduct. The rise of so-called hashtag activism, with movements that went viral such as #metoo and #timesup, has helped to increasingly raise awareness of gender issues such as exclusion, inequality and abuse. The movement has also produced more tangible results, such as the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund: thanks to generous donations from some of Hollywood's biggest names, it allows low-income women to turn away from the sexual violence they suffer and pay for a lawyer to represent them.
In 2019, the topic chosen for DIM's campaign is #BalanceforBetter, a call to action to accelerate the achievement of full gender balance and reinforce the need for collective action and shared responsibility to drive a better, more equal world. Describing gender equality as a "business issue," the goal is to encourage gender balance in politics, media and decision-making as a way to make economies thrive. Maintaining a gender parity mindset, challenging stereotypes and prejudices, forging positive visibility for women, or influencing the beliefs and actions of others are some of the practical steps we can all take in our daily lives to counteract gender discrimination.