If there is a Google doodle, then it must be true. Riding high on an annual debate on whether such a day is more farce than celebration, more a capitalist ploy than genuine appreciation, International Women’s Day arrives with the usual fanfare, each year, on 8 March.

In its essence and at its core, the day stands as a testament to the power of women and demands that they are given equal rights across the world. Each year since 1996, the United Nations has designated a theme for the day. This year, the theme is “think equal, build smart, innovate for a change.” Earlier themes have been women and HIV/AIDS (2004), women in decision-making (2006), end of violence against women and girls (2009) and empowerment of rural women (2012).

The official International Women’s Day website has taken the UN’s message further to define the theme as #BalanceforBetter where everyone strives for a gender balanced world.

How the day came into being

The University of Chicago, in its website for women’s programmes, pegs the beginning of the International Women’s Day in 1907, when 15,000 women workers in the textile industry walked in a march through New York, demanding shorter work hours, fair pay and lending their voice to the already growing clamour for suffrage for women. The demonstrators also commemorated police brutality on a similar women workers’ demonstration in 1857.

On 28 February 1909, the first National Woman’s Day was celebrated in the United States of America. Novelist and social reformist Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressed a gathering in which she made the stirring claim, “It is true that a woman’s duty is centred in her home and motherhood but home should mean the whole country.”

While women gained prominence in political arenas, it was the World Wars that gave the day its present form. Wars were largely considered men’s domain and in the tension-ridden atmosphere of the days preceding World War I, Russia saw some of its biggest all-women campaigns for peace.

As the World War, I looked to end and the Russian Revolution was set to begin in 1917, women in Russia led a massive demonstration under feminist leader Alexandra Kollontai, on the last Sunday in February on the Soviet calendar. The day is 8 March according to the Gregorian calendar. In 1922, Lenin officially designated it as Women’s Day.

By 1975, the 8 March date had gained popularity enough for the United Nations to designate it as International Women’s Day. Two years later, the UN’s 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 the Member States, in accordance with their historical and national tradition.”

The significance of Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world. With no religious or regional connotations defining it, the day is universally accepted as one where women of all race, colour, nationality and age are celebrated.

The day is an official holiday in many countries like Afghanistan, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Russia and Zambia. Yet the struggles of women are far from over, and 8 March has always been the day to resolve and strive for a better situation for women. The day is also an opportunity to remember the inequality faced by women in every sphere of life and the particular struggles of women in certain regions of the world.

“In recent decades, we have seen remarkable progress on women’s rights and leadership in some areas. But these gains are far from complete or consistent – and they have already sparked a troubling backlash from entrenched patriarchy,” reads the UN Secretary General’s statement on the theme of the 2019 Women’s Day.

The UN has set a deadline of 2030 to complete the goals it has yet to achieve equality for women. From urban planning that focuses on community safety to e-learning platforms that take classrooms to women and girls, from affordable and quality childcare centres across the world to more use of technology shaped by women, this Women’s Day has been dedicated to realising all of these visions and more.

Women and men have been asked to post photos of themselves on social media, with a “hands out” pose signifying gender balance in a strong call-to-action for others to also help forge a balanced world without gender injustice.

Today, the day is as criticised as it is celebrated. Many have spoken out against the blithe commercialisation of the day, thanks to discount offers on feminine products that swamp the market at this time. It is, nonetheless, a time to reflect on progress made.



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