International Women’s Day was established by the United Nations in 1975 to celebrate the achievements of women and highlight gender inequality hurdles that still need to be overcome. Now, 41 years later, the day itself has lost its meaning somewhat, much like South Africa’s own Women’s Day on 9 August, and is often marked by stereotyped symbols (free pink cupcake, anyone?) and insincere statements – most recently, President Jacob Zuma made this sexist statement while parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete wrote this today.
However, despite all the amazing women breaking new ground, obstacles such as patriarchy, sexism and misogyny still affect women’s lives. Every day is still ‘Men’s Day’, and the singling out of one day in the year to globally highlight gender inequality can still be a powerful tool for awareness.
Here are four things affecting women all over the world that need to be given attention:
Lack of sanitary care is holding millions of girls back
Over 100 million girls worldwide miss school every month because they don’t have access to sanitary pads. In South Africa alone, it’s estimated that 7 million girls are affected by this problem. According to the Daily Vox, the price of menstruation as estimated in 2011 was between R16 000 – R19 000 per lifetime, and despite the fact that menstruation is not a choice, sanitary products continue to be taxed heavily in countries around the world.
For many of these girls, missing school means missing the opportunity to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty. We can help temporarily through NGOs like AFRIpads, but ultimately we need to fight for free access to sanitary care in the long run.
Women don’t have access to safe abortions
Amnesty International reports that 39% of people worldwide live in countries where abortions are either completely illegal or only allowed if women can prove that their lives are in danger. Countries like Angola, Chile and Ireland force women to carry children despite signs of fatal health problems with the foetus, regardless of the circumstances under which the child was conceived, and regardless of the effects that carrying the child might have on the woman’s physical and mental health.
In the US, recent laws affecting the government funding of Planned Parenthood women’s health clinics have caused many branches to close down, leaving women without access to reproductive healthcare. This week, the New York Times reported that in the US searches for DIY abortion methods have spiked in the past year.
While many countries, like South Africa, do offer safe and affordable abortion procedures, stigma and personal beliefs prevent many women from using this option.
The gender pay gap
Despite women’s increasingly equal role in the workforce and following careers that were previously thought of as ‘for men’, the gender pay gap in most countries is still dismally high. The gender pay gap refers to the disparity between what women and men are paid for doing the same type and amount of work. In South Africa, the gender pay gap is over 17% and in the US it’s 21%. In their report titled The Simple Truth About The Gender Pay Gap, the American Association of University Women found that the pay gap has barely changed for the past ten years; it’s worse for women of colour and mothers, and it only gets worse as women get older.
Rape and sexual assault continue because of rape culture
According to Africa Check, over 500 000 incidents of sexual assault took place in South Africa in 2014. Out of those, only 62 000 were reported. Only 1% of sexual assault survivors manage to get their perpetrators convicted. Stigma and fear of not being believed prevent women from coming forward and reporting their cases, or from sharing their experience with anyone.
Public figures like Lena Dunham and Lady Gaga have shared their experiences publicly with the aim of creating conversation around sexual assault and de-stigmatising the issue. However, cases like Bill Cosby’s – where over 50 women have accused him of sexual assault and has still not led to conviction – prove that more needs to be done for survivors and for creating a culture of consent.
Of course, International Women’s Day won’t solve all these problems but collective action, whether on social media or in real life, can have a powerful impact on bringing about change.