A Meaningful International Women’s Day? More than Marketing

A woman drinking from a can of Feminism Lite
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By Sheza Afzal: sheza@equaliteach.co.uk

On 8th March 2019, corporations, businesses, charities, educational institutes and governments around the world will celebrate International Women’s Day: a day to recognise and celebrate the historical, economic, social and political achievements of women, which may have been obscured in mainstream histories and cultures. The origin of this day goes back to the women’s movement for suffrage, and in 1911 the German socialist Clara Zetkin organised the first International Women’s Day conference, with delegates from 17 countries. The aim was to gather together and press for women’s rights. Since 1975, the day has been officially been recognised by the United Nations, and is marked by most countries.

More than 100 years after the first such day was marked, and despite huge gains, it is hard to claim that women globally have achieved parity with men. Battles are still being fought over women’s reproductive rights, legal rights, employment rights and against sexual violence, both abroad and at home. Sexual harassment affects the lives of millions of women and girls, with 1 in 5 women encountering some form of sexual violence. The recent decisions in the UK to allow perpetrators of sexual violence back into their institutions of study illustrates that there is insufficient concern for the wellbeing and safety of their victims. And whilst strides have been made to address sexual harassment in the workplace, one area that goes severely underreported is in sports, where sexism is entrenched and many women chose to keep quiet to avoid risking their careers. The gender pay gap, although closing,  remains an issue which is still widely misunderstood and continues to negatively impact the lives of many; in 2018 the average full-time female employee  earned 8.6% less per hour, than the average full-time male employee. All these issues are indicative that gender inequality still exists and is far from resolved. Marking International Women’s Day therefore ensures, at the very least, that focus is kept on the persistent gender obstacles women and girls face, and the continued need to fight for change.

The visibility, coherence and momentum of International Women’s Day, complete with a specific theme, Instagram-able pose, and co-ordinated purple and white official colour scheme is impressive, but it is also problematic. The way this day is celebrated easily lends itself to what has been labelled ‘Pop Feminism’, which centres on slogans, accessories and empowering soundbites rather than active, meaningful change. It has led to the easy commercialisation of the day, with pink cupcakes and discount spa days being flogged as gifts to show your appreciation of the women in your life.  For corporations, it allows an emphasis on attention-grabbing ‘displays’ of feminist celebrations and celebrating ‘chat’ over significant action.  Last year, corporations came under criticism for shamelessly capitalising on this day, with McDonalds upturning it’s ‘M’ logo to a ‘W’ and KFC introducing a ‘wife’ for Colonel Sanders. In China, the day is marketed as ‘Goddess day’, and retailers use it to increase revenues, showing how feminism can be made into a brand and marketing tool. Whilst as self-identifying feminist, Chimmanda Ngozi Adiche, points out, it is better to have pop feminism as it at least makes feminism visible, there is a very real danger of diluting the day of its potential and potency. Making it sweet and cuddly and pink runs the risk of robbing the day, and the feminist movement underpinning it, of its teeth and from demanding real, sustainable change.

Ensuring a meaningful, successful International Women’s day means more than a feel-good, photo or meme-generating opportunity to promote yourself or your organisation. It also requires more than taking action on this one single day, and then relegating it out of sight and mind for the remaining 364 days of the year.  It entails a commitment to real, sustainable and inclusive global change: “Feminism is not an annual event, but a daily practice.” (Moore, 2013). So in view of this, here are some examples of what that might involve:

  1. Consider where you buy your clothes. Garment manufacturing disproportionally impacts women working in the global south, who make up 80% of the workforce and whose labour is often exploited. Find out how ethical your favourite high street brands are or get more information on the issue of ethically produced clothing from http://labourbehindthelabel.org.
  2. Support a women-focused charity; there are hundreds to choose from. Some global women’s charities such as Women Worldwide or Plan International, focus on addressing issues such as girls’ education or female health and reproductive rights, whilst  here are some UK-oriented women’s charities. An all-rounder that targets four key areas: leadership, safety, health and well-being and economic justice is Rosa. And if you have time and some skills to offer rather than donations, consider becoming a mentor for young women.
  3. Consider how much leisure time you enjoy. Research shows that women have significantly less leisure time than men (4.75 hours a week less) because of the ‘second shift’ that women work, doing the lion’s share of caring and cleaning duties. Recognising this, discussing it, and negotiating a fairer share of household duties in mixed-gender households could help spread the load more evenly. 
  4. Make sure you are up to date on women’s legal rights over their bodies and sexual activity. Recent research shows that 33% of the population believe that it isn’t rape if a woman is pressurised into sex but there is no physical violence involved. 40% believe that pretending to use a condom (but not actually using it) does not constitute rape (it does). This is perhaps unsurprising, considering martial rape was only considered illegal in 2003, so make sure you understand what consent actually means, and tell others.
  5. Ensure your workplace has robust policies and procedures to tackle sexual harassment. 40% of women have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace, and to combat this, the government is launching a new code of conduct for employers to better understand their legal duties and how to protect their staff.
  6. For schools, ensure you are creating gender equality through the curriculum, environment and policies. For more ideas on how to ensure gender equality is being promoted in schools, watch this space for our forthcoming publication in collaboration with Rosa, which includes schools’ statutory duties, a guide to conducting a baseline assessment of the educational environment, and tips and support on how to make tangible, sustainable changes.
  7. Buy a variety of toys for children, regardless of gender. Research shows that children are socialised into gender norms from a young age, and a significant part of that is from the toys they play with. This affects the way children’s brains develop, with building blocks or puzzles developing spatial skills, and dolls or role play games developing communication skills. Playing with different types of toys facilitates the development of a broader range of skills, cultivating wider academic and career choices.
  8. Perhaps the most fitting way to celebrate International Women’s Day and push for change is to attend a protest. Since 2017, huge women’s marches across the globe have demanded change and ensured these issues remain on the radar. Failing that, here are some events over the weekend that mark this event, and can be used to celebrate, educate, and nurture change. And beyond the weekend, a calendar of events throughout the year to remain inspired and committed to positive change.

So take your pick. Do something big or small. And keep doing it.A

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