In review: What does International Women’s Day mean to women?

International Women’s Day – a time to reflect on progress made, a call for change and a celebration of acts by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries, communities and lives.

Or is it?

What exactly does International Women’s Day (IWD) mean to women?

What stood out for me, quite substantially, as I read articles and live blog feeds on the events occurring for IWD, was the sheer volume of negativity towards the event. For some, IWD is about channelling our inner Emmeline Pankhurst and wearing the right colours on the day (after all, it’s what Ms Pankhurst would have wanted, right?). For others, it’s about making a point of deliberately not celebrating and falling into the self-deprecating trap of feminist bashing.

I was also struck by the commentary under lead-stories on mainstream websites and on the blogosphere questioning the purpose of IWD and why we need it, cynicism around the motivation behind events on the day and claims of such events being purely for the benefit and advancement of Western women and corporate presence – among cries of ‘when’s International Men’s day?!!’ (It’s the 19th of November – along with every other day of the year).

Despite the negativity, I believe Bollywood actor and UN Women regional ambassador Farhan Akhtar has done a succinct job of summing up what IWD is really about:

“Women’s Day was initiated as a day to focus on pressing issues that affect half the population of our world. Although each day is an opportunity to deal with these issues, we should use this dedicated day as a milestone to measure how much progress has been made since the previous year. For me, it is an honour to be part of this global movement and to stand shoulder to shoulder with fiercely committed women and men.”

For me, International Women’s Day is about celebrating the progress and achievements we, as women, have made throughout history. The teacher education website, Global Dimensions, sums it up nicely:

“The day aims to highlight the importance of creating conditions for the elimination of discrimination against women and their full and equal participation in social development.”

As I have already mentioned, I believe we really do need IWD to reflect on the kinds of progress made, to call for further change and to celebrate actions already taken. Even more important than that, we need an International Women’s Day because:

  • Not one country in the world treats its women the same as its men (Social Watch)
  • Violence against women is more likely to kill or maim women aged 15-44 than cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined (United Nations)
  • Globally, 20,000 honour killings are estimated to take place each year (New Internationalist)
  • A woman in sub-Saharan Africa is 330 times more likely to die through complications during pregnancy or labour than a Western woman (New Internationalist)
  • Two thirds of the world’s illiterate population are women (80:20, p96)
  • The number of women in Ireland being supported by Sonas, the Irish charity which provides housing support to women and children affected by domestic violence has increased by 163% since 2009 (
  • A study by the London School of Economics found that boys are more likely to receive preferential treatment in rescue efforts following natural disasters and that girls suffer more from shortages of food and lack of privacy and safety (
  • Nearly four in 10 people globally (close to half in developing countries) agree that when jobs are scarce, men should have more rights to jobs than women (Global Dimensions)
  • One in three women worldwide will experience violence in their lifetime (World Health Organisation)
  • 80% of the 50 million people around the world who are affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disasters, and displacement are women and children (WHO)

Rather than perpetuating the negativity I came across in my reading on IWD, ending this blog with quotes from women around the world on what equality and IWD means to them is a more appropriate and positive approach to take, as asked by The Guardian.


Here is just a sample of some of the responses, illustrating why it is so important to continuously shine the light on women’s issues and how they affect all of us, in general.

Dunya Maumoon, foreign minister for the Maldives

“When a woman is empowered, all of society thrives. When you give a girl the gift of education, she educates an entire community. When women are given a platform to speak, we witness transformative change.

“Despite the immeasurable contribution of women to our societies, we still live in a world where women and girls are considered inferior. Their rights are being violated too often. Their potential at large still remains untapped. Our failure to close the gender gap remains one of the greatest injustices of our times.

Gender equality is not just a moral imperative. Nor should it be viewed merely as an obligation we have to uphold under international frameworks. We pursue gender equality because it should be the norm. Today, let us once again commit to act and speak up for gender parity so that we can achieve the future we all truly deserve.”

Hayley Long, author:

“For me, equality for women is about all of us being treated with fairness and respect in every aspect of our daily lives. It’s about restrictive gender stereotypes being a thing of the past. It’s about feeling secure and confident in our own skins. It’s about older women being valued too. And it’s about being able to say the word ‘period’ without mumbling.”

Wanuri Kahiu – Kenyan film maker

“We still live in a time where we battle for sameness. In my work, the view is still largely slanted and there are few female film directors whose work is recognised internationally. Women filmmakers have become a genre. Equality means equal attention, care and facilitation for women’s work in every industry. And equal bucks as well!”

Greta Scacchi – actor

“Equality would mean women being valued as much as men value themselves and no longer having the need for IWD.”

Sophie Walker – WEP

“Equality to me means freedom, and a society that is built on the six objectives that the Women’s Equality party is striving to achieve: an end to violence against women and girls; equal representation in all walks of life; equal opportunities to thrive and be paid equally for the work that we do; sharing equally the joys and responsibilities of caregiving; seeing our lives reflected equally and accurately in the media that surrounds us; and giving our children an equal education so that the next generation leads lives free from gendered expectations.

The rapper Eve is in Kalebuka, a village near Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this week, opening the village’s first library with the charity Malaika

To me, equality starts with education. Education is the key to self-esteem and opens up a world of choices. I was very lucky to be born to a strong, independent woman who taught me that nothing was impossible. Not going to school wasn’t an option, I even took it for granted in some ways, as it was just a given. But in many parts of the world, not every little girl has access to an education.

When I was young, and a lot more fearless, I thought I could take on the world in whatever way I wanted. I am forever thankful to have been brought up in that way, as it made me into the person I am today. As I got older and became more aware of the world around me, I began to understand how difficult it is for women in other parts of the world. Equality to me means that every little girl will be able to have the gift of education in the years to come.”

Annie Nightingale – the First Female presenter on BBC Radio 1

“Equality for me means being offered the same avenues of opportunity to achieve the most fulfillment, whether it’s to become a disc jockey or to become an astrophysicist.

Equality to me means getting equal pay.

Equality means not having to use initials instead of a first name as an author, because of perceived bias against female writers.

Equality means that if there’s a Woman’s Hour, there should also be a Man’s Hour.”

Noella Coursaris Musunka – Founder of and international model

“Equality to me means having access to opportunity. We can all agree that girls should be able to read and write at the same level as boys, but the way to achieve this is by ensuring that girls have access to education.

Gender inequality pervades Congolese society and is compounded by extreme poverty.

When families can afford to send their children to school, they choose the boys, while the girls work on domestic tasks. This is why the Malaika school offers a free and high quality education to 230 girls. Any attempt to bring about equality must take into account this intersection between gender and economics.”

Charlotte Edwards – captain of the English Women’s cricket team

“For me, equality is all about creating an even playing field, which allows everyone to participate and makes sure that everyone has the opportunity to fulfill their potential.”

Nicola Sturgeon – First Minister of Scotland

“Since becoming first minister, I have looked to use my position to send out a positive and strong message to girls and women that there should be no limit to your ambition. Terms like ‘dangerous’ belittle the positions of women in power by implying that we should be feared, not trusted or not skilled enough to do the job.

I want to challenge the status quo and set an ambitious agenda to make Scotland a fairer and more prosperous nation where opportunities are open to everyone and where everyone is able to contribute their talent, skill and commitment.”

Olaoluwa Abagun – Nigerian organisation Women Deliver

“In 2014, I shared a picture with some of the Nigerian adolescent girls I work with of a female civil engineer in her bright orange overalls, deeply engrossed in a building project with her all-male-but-one team. The girls cringed. They all thought it was a ‘weird’ place for a young woman to be.

To my mind, equality means that this table of ‘weirdness’ is flipped, and all members of my society cringe instead at the absence of women across several socioeconomic spaces.”

Genesis Luigi – Women deliver, Venezuela

“Equality means to me recognising and embracing diversity. Equality not only means that opportunities should be available to everyone; it means that everyone can have the chance to develop their potential.”

Zoe Wanamaker – Actress

“Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.”

16-year-old Grace, from Malawi, who used to go to secondary school but had to withdraw after two years because her mother could not afford the fees. Here’s what Grace has to say on IWD:

“I want to be working and do a good job because I want to assist my family. I think this will be impossible. I’m very worried and I admire my friends when they are going to school. They don’t tell me anything any more because I don’t ask them … In the morning I go to the field, when we come back, we clean outside the house, we clean inside the house, we wash our plates, we cook food, we bath. That’s what I do.

To the whole world, I’d want to tell them that here we have no food we are starving and if there’s any help, we would appreciate it if some people can help us to avert our situation.”

British film director Sarah Gavron

“Equality means access – for all women everywhere – to rights, opportunity and resources. Access to education is vital as it leads to so much. At the moment 62 million girls across the globe are denied an education.”

Aqeela Asifi – teacher in refugee camp in Pakistan

“As we commemorate this year’s IWD, we need to understand how is achieving this equality possible.

We live in the 21st century, but sadly when you look around, our women are still oppressed in the name of honour and culture. Women are not only denied their basic human rights but are also subject to myriad types of domestic violence. Women are traded as commodities to settle family feuds or debts, given in forced marriage and child marriages. In most part of the world women are denied their basic human right of getting an education.

That is the gloomy side of the picture which needs to be changed, and as an empowered woman myself, I strongly believe the formation of a just society is not a fantasy but reality, only if there is a strong will behind the notion. If you talk development, you can’t achieve 100% results by empowering only 50% of your population. Our world can only prosper when our remaining 50% are empowered through education and access to equal economic opportunities.

Every girl and every woman should have the right to get an education. That is the only key to success, which I have been witnessing as a teacher in a remote refugee camp here in Pakistan. Progressive families where girls and boys are treated equally are economically more prosperous compared to families where girls are denied their rights.”


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