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Today is International Women’s Rights Day. It’s a day largely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women and marking the progress that has been made in gender equality and women’s rights. It is a day to remember all the women who came before and paved the way for the women’s rights movement to be where it is today. It is a day to commemorate progress; and there is a lot to celebrate. But who gets to celebrate? And whose achievements are getting recognized?
As this day grew closer, I saw more and more people talking about Women’s Day on social media. Governments, corporations, and charities alike use this day to gain attention and show that they care about women. Conveniently, the usual discourses around progress in gender equality are equating progress to economic gains and inclusion within structures and systems that previously excluded women and are usually situated in the “western world”. One major example of this brought up in this discussion was the recent midterm election in the United States where the most women in history were elected to the US Congress. This was viewed as a milestone. Meanwhile, there are countries like Rwanda, where almost two-thirds of parliament is made up of women; yet no one is speaking about this achievement. With this example, I am not trying to make a point about the importance of a gender quota in government. Rather I am drawing attention to the privilege that exists with celebrating days like International Women’s Rights Day. It is the privileged women viewed as western and modern whose achievements are celebrated.
Furthermore, it is difficult for me to celebrate progress on International Women’s Rights Day when there are still so many women around the world whose rights are constantly violated. Working at HART has opened my eyes to many situations in which women and girls continuously face violence in the face of conflict, yet the violence is normalized as a part of conflict. The conflict in South Sudan serves as a great example of the normalization of violence against women and girls. In December, the United Nations reported mass sexual assault taking place in South Sudan where upwards of 150 women and girls sought out medical attention and help after being assaulted. An additional report out of South Sudan explained how the conflict is fueling child marriage. The increase of poverty is pushing families to marry off young daughters as a last desperate push for survival. The dowry they receive in exchange is used to purchase food and other necessities. Occurrences such as these are later just brushed off as a normal part of war and unrest.
This is not to say poverty and gender inequality are only issues in African countries. It is merely an example meant to highlight the privilege we have to celebrate progress and the responsibility we have to use our privilege in work that still needs to be done. And while it is okay to celebrate progress, let us not focus only on the achievements of a select few while we ignore our own shortcomings in other places. Let us move forward together for true recognition, equity, and fairness for all.
Finally, on this International Women’s Rights Day, and everyday hereafter, let us live with the words of activist and feminist Audre Lorde in mind: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
By Areni Der Grigorian