International Women’s Day (IWD) is a great idea — in theory. Why not set aside a moment each year to highlight both the historical and present-day circumstances that impact women's lives? If used properly, it could do some good.
But the problem with international-anything-day is that the plights and progress of historically disenfranchised people vary dramatically throughout the world. Yes, global citizens have plenty of shared values and many of the same end-goals, but the advancements happening (or not happening) in one community will often be different in the neighbouring town, city or country — and certainly different from what’s happening continents over. A woman’s life here in Britain will not reflect her counterpart in Mexico, Saudi Arabia or China.
Perhaps if we were better at acknowledging these rates of progress, calendar staples like IWD could be used to target our time and attention towards the very serious problems women still face: domestic violence, sexual assault, political suppression and lack of basic reproductive healthcare, to name a few.
But that’s not what we do. We stay in our bubbles. It is not the millions of women marching in Mexico to protest the rise of gender-based violence leading the news agenda this IWD — it’s Meghan Markle reading out feminist quotes to a group of school students. The lead-up to IWD this year didn’t give prominence to the escalating number of rapes taking place in refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesvos (credit to ITV who did) — it was the TUC’s study which claimed that women ‘effectively work for free’ the first two months of the year, because of the gender pay gap, which bagged most of the coverage. (The Fawcett Society will remind us in November that, based on their own faulty calculations, women are ‘working for free’ the last two months of the year, which makes one wonder: has any women out there actually seen one of the mythical pay slips that get given to men in January, February, November or December?)
To buy into this nonsense would require one to think that working women in Britain have it worse than the women who worked as secretaries or assistants in the 1950s or 60s. But the crude manipulation of statistics and misleading narratives around women at work don’t just plague us on IWD; it’s all-year round. Women’s success stories and ambitions are slapped down with frequent claims that the gender pay gap amounts to illegal, unequal pay or sexist discrimination. But it grinds on us even more when groups play politics on a day that is supposed to be inclusive for all women.
Of course not every story on IWD has to highlight the worst-case scenarios for women abroad. There are plenty of injustices which take place close to home that deserve a spotlight today. Perhaps today’s BBC website article highlighting the ‘online gender gap’ — which as far as I can tell, laments the ratio of male and female Wikipedia editors — could have given prominence to the poor conditions of Yarlswood detention centre in Bedfordshire instead.
At its best IWD should be an opportunity to highlight the amazing contributions women have made to public life, the many advancements we’ve made (often in very little time) to creating a more equal world, and to direct attention, money and resources towards those trying to tackle injustices. It should not be treated as an invitation to invent, over-exaggerate or distract from the problems women still face.
Unfortunately, we still haven’t gotten the balance right. Here’s to next year — another chance to burst the bubble and get our priorities straight.