Women’s Day, a century on

PARIS (AFP) – Nearly 100 years old, International Women’s Day on March 8, tomorrow, marks an ongoing worldwide battle to ensure equal rights for half the globe’s population on issues such as work, voting and abortion. One of this year’s key events will be a massive Women’s Day meet this weekend in Liberia, hosted by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to focus on the future of women in the world. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among 400 leading women, several of them heads of state, expected at the gathering – which also marks a milestone for Liberia, still recovering from its 1989-2003 civil war and hosting its first such high-profile event since the late 1970s. Conceived in 1910, International Women’s Day was recognized by the United Nations in 1977. The origin of marking a day for women’s rights is actually American – although, like many such symbolic days, clouded in uncertainty and competing claims. In the United States, the country’s long-defunct Socialist Party of America celebrated a National Women’s Day on February 28, 1909. But it was a year later, at an International Socialist Women’s conference in Copenhagen, that the notion was born of an international day to celebrate the female sex – at a time of mounting anger over unequal treatment in politics and the workplace. On March 19, 1911, the day was commemorated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, with more than a million women and men coming out onto the streets. A massive women’s protest in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg in 1917 to protest the price of bread and to welcome soldiers home from the World War I front on March 8 (February 23 in the Russian calendar) helped spark the Russian Revolution and cement the day in history. Today, the March 8 tradition still remains strong in communist countries: in China, for example, female workers are granted a half-day off. Elsewhere, it gained momentum alongside the broader feminist movements of the 1970s. In 1977, it was officially declared by the UN General Assembly as the United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. And at a 1995 UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, representatives from 189 countries agreed that gender inequalities affected the well-being of all the world’s population – both men and women. Today, the day serves as a reminder of the fields in which women must still battle for fundamental rights, and where they remain victims of violence and enduring inequalities. Female representation in politics still low UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Women hold just over 18 percent of the seats in parliaments around the world, a 60 percent increase since 1995 but a long distance from equality with men in national legislative bodies, the Inter-Parliamentary Union said on Thursday in its annual report card. «We still feel that progress is slow,» said Philippines Senator Pia Cayetano, the president of the IPU committee of women parliamentarians, stressing that on average fewer than one in five legislators is a woman. «The challenges that women face in accessing politics are immense,» she told a news conference. «Prejudices and cultural perceptions about the role of society are among the greatest obstacles to women’s entry.» During 2008, parliamentary elections and renewals took place in 54 countries and women’s representation increased to 18.3 percent – up from 17.7 percent last year and 11.3 percent in 1995, the IPU report said. The UN Economic and Social Council had set a target of having a minimum of 30 percent women lawmakers in all parliaments by 1995. The UN women’s conference in Beijing in 1995 noted that little progress had been made in achieving that target, and the IPU and many women’s groups started promoting the election of female legislators. According to the IPU, 15 percent of parliamentary chambers reached the 30 percent goal for the first time in 2008. That translates into 39 out of 264 chambers in 32 countries. Forty percent of those chambers are in Europe, 33 percent in Africa and 23 percent in Latin America, the report said. At the other end of the spectrum, however, 25 percent of parliamentary chambers have less than 10 percent women members and Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Micronesia have never had a woman parliamentarian. «It is unfortunate that we are not seeing progress being made across all parliaments of the world,» IPU President Theo-Ben Gurirab said in a statement. «While there were some impressive gains made in 2008, particularly in Africa, where Rwanda’s lower house elected a majority of women members, more needs to be done in those countries where women are largely absent from decision-making bodies.» Latin American women registered «some impressive gains,» taking a 26.5 percent share of seats in the 12 chambers that were renewed – largely due to the success of women candidates in Cuba, Belize and Grenada, the IPU report said. In the United States, both houses of Congress elected their highest proportions of women members – 17 percent in each chamber, the report said. But that’s still ranks the US below the global average. Europe, with Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands ranked in the top five countries for women in parliament, sustained its «consistent pace of progress» with gains in Belarus, Spain, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Monaco and France’s upper house, but drops in women representatives in Romania, Malta and Serbia, the report said. «Asia has registered the slowest rate of progress in terms of women’s access to parliament over the past 15 years, reaching a regional average of 17.8 percent,» the IPU said. In the Arab world, women took just over 9 percent of seats, but the lowest percentage of women – less than 4 percent on average – was in the Pacific island nations, the IPU said.

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