When the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911, only four nations on Earth – New Zealand, Australia, the Cook Islands and Finland – recognized the right of women to vote. Today, the idea that women and men should be equal participants in society is viewed almost everywhere as a fundamental human right. Yet true equality remains elusive.
Women compose more than half of the world’s population, but are underrepresented in those governing bodies that make decisions about war and peace. Only seven of the world’s 150 elected Heads of State – and only 11 of its 192 Heads of Government – are women, and only 17 percent of seats in national parliaments are held by women leaders. The division is even starker within religious communities, where women represent the majority of the faithful, but men most often hold the power.
More than half of all women now work outside the home. Yet women still bear a disproportionate responsibility for work inside the home: in every region of the world, women spend at least twice as much time as men maintaining and caring for their families. Equal access to education, to property and to health care continues to be a struggle for women in many parts of the world.
Women are also overrepresented as the victims of war and other forms of violence. The recent gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi, the shooting of a 15-year-old free speech activist by members of the Pakistani Taliban and the insistence by some Egyptian clerics that women who take part in street protests deserve to be raped are all shocking in their brutality and fundamental inhumanity – yet they are by no means isolated incidents.
"We have a moral duty to end the atrocious types of violence that women and girls are being subjected to and to maintain their dignity,” said Kiran Bali, chair of URI’s Global Council, who on Feb. 14 asked the United Nations General Assembly to increase its support for women leaders. “By strengthening the implementation and impact of women's initiatives, we can progress towards gender equality in decision-making at all levels"
Our organization, the United Religions Initiative, has as one of its governing principles “the equitable participation of women and men in all aspects” of its work. Throughout the world, URI’s Cooperation Circles are working to address issues of particular interest to women – expanding access to education, health care and microfinance, and ending sex trafficking, domestic violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS – while also recognizing the importance of women’s wisdom and leadership at every level of community development.
These are issues of interest to women, but they are not exclusively “women’s issues.” The 1995 Beijing Declaration, adopted by the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, committed its signers “to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere in the interest of humanity.” What we celebrate on International Women’s Day is not merely what women have achieved, but how far we, as humans, have come together.