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Dreaming on a Mountain: from Women's Day to Women's Power
Rebecca Johnson, Women in Black London

What is the point of International Women's Day on March 8? It was first established for working women's rights in 1911 and for decades was barely observed outside the Soviet bloc, where its origins in women's struggles were suffocated in rituals of men giving flowers and chocolates to female family members and employees. Such belated Valentine's gestures may be enjoyed by some, but they hardly make up for the high levels of alcohol-fuelled violence and the post-Cold War erosion of women's rights in Putin's Russia, including access to jobs, training and equal pay.


Moreover, I've witnessed how this patronising ritual can be used to embarrass and undermine rather than empower women. When Russian diplomats made a great show of chivalry by doling out red roses to the few women ambassadors at a United Nations meeting some years ago, the recipients had to smile woodenly, but they shared their fury in the privacy of a women-only gathering afterwards. The occasion was an International Women's Day debate on disarmament and development but the romantic parody of the Russian action diverted attention from the serious issues of armed violence and women's security needs and prompted other male delegates to chuckle indulgently at their female colleagues' discomfort.

Here in Britain most people are unaware of the significance of March 8, though International Women's Day was trailed in the Independent on Sunday by a front page and feature on "The best and worst places to be a woman". Some results in this top twenty list begged more questions than they answered, not least about the criteria and implications of such comparative statistics and compilations.

Britain didn't feature very high in any category.  That would not have surprised participants in the Million Women Rise march through London on March 3. This year's focus was girl children, and the march was led by feisty young women from the many walks and colours of today's British Isles, with drums, songs and some great chants. On arrival in Trafalgar Square, we were treated to singing and dancing from a young African-British troupe -- mostly girls, but with a couple of boys as well.

Yet for all the smiles and chants about women's power, the Million Women Rise demonstration was not so much a celebration of this symbolic day as a call for us to commit every day to resisting violence and oppression. One after another, women from the Congo, Iran, Somalia and Sri Lanka spoke about the torture, rape and violence inflicted on women who have engaged in liberation struggles for political and human rights.  Leila, an Iranian activist, related the bitter lessons learned by women in Iran who had actively participated in the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979. When their male 'comrades' handed power to religious leaders the clocks were turned back on Iranian women, who were consigned to the political shadows with mandatory hijab and oppressive laws. Pointing to the political upheavals in neighbouring Arab countries, she warned that women's rights and freedoms must not be sacrificed to other political agendas pushed by military or religious factions, even in the name of democracy (which has many versions).

The harrowing experiences of many speakers spelled out how militarism and violence against women are inextricably connected. Speaking on behalf of Women in Black, I also made links with the work of women in the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) to halt the arms sales and trafficking that put guns into the hands of the marauding gangs and rapists who prey on women and children in Africa, Latin America, Asia and also our own cities here in Britain and beyond.

From knives to guns and on up to nuclear weapons, these are the tools that underpin the continuum of patriarchal violence that movements like Million Women Rise, Women in Black, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Code Pink have been confronting for many years.  Last year, the 9 nuclear-armed countries - Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United States - spent over $104 billion (£65 billion) on nuclear weapons, according to US-based "Global Zero".  And in case anyone thought that nuclear weapons were a cheap deterrent, the overall military budgets of these same 9 states came to an obscene combined bill of over $1,052 billion (£663 bn), with the US Pentagon responsible for more than half.

In just  that one year, 2011, Britain's military bill was around £36 billion, of which £3.5 billion were just for the Trident nuclear weapons system and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) bomb factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield. And that's even before Trident is replaced for a further 30 years at a cost likely to exceed 100 billion, according to CND. As speakers pointed out during the Million Women Rise demonstration, that's money stolen from women's real security needs, including better education, health services, safe and affordable housing, rape crisis centres, and legal aid for domestic violence and other 'family' cases.

Speakers from the British Asian and Chinese communities, from student organisations, and the trade-union-based Coalition of Resistance described how women and girls are being badly hit by the Coalition Government's cuts in social services and disability, housing and other benefits. Despite several waves of feminism since International Women's Day was instituted in 2011, women in most countries still carry the major burdens of caring for children and the sick, elderly and disabled. As explained by a speaker from the campaigning group Women in Prison, women are also more likely to fall through the cracks when cuts are made to services that provide help to deal with problems related to alcohol, drugs, homelessness and domestic violence.

At the end I sang "The Mountain Song" by Holly Near. Written in the 1970s to support Kentucky women opposing the destruction of their mountain homes by strip mining, the song was adapted by Greenham women as a powerful song of protection, hope and resistance. "I have dreamed on this mountain since first I was my mother's daughter and you can't just take my dreams away" For us the mountain symbolised the high but attainable objectives that we needed first to dream into possibility and then work together to build - peace and justice in a world free of nuclear weapons.  Million Women Rise adds the difficult but achievable dreams of women yearning to live free from violence, of girls demanding education and resources to control their fertility, develop their potential and love whomsoever they choose.

Standing in the way of our human rights, democratic choices, freedoms and political power is a high ugly wall of military-industrial profiteering. We have to break militarism down to size in order to see and reach the mountain of our real security.

When millions of women rise around the world, we won't need an International Women's Day.  When millions of women rise around the world we'll be able to harness all the days, years and resources we need to deal with climate change, poverty, violence and war.

International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA)


International Women's Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific: Women at the Forefront

IWRAW Asia Pacific wishes to take this moment to acknowledge and commemorate the struggles and merits of women, who for the last century and more, have strived for peace, freedom, independence, democracy and in bringing to the forefront the issues and struggles for ending violence, discrimination and unequal power relations in society. International Women’s Day has marked the empowerment of women’s economic, political and social achievements. Today we witness women at the forefront of movements that seek to end tyrannical regimes and establish governments that work for the needs and aspirations of all people.

What is the reality for women today?

Economic and trade liberalization, the capitalist market economy, non sustainable consumerism all hallmarks of the current global economic and development framework, are not environments that enhance gender equality, nor contribute successfully towards the eradication of poverty. Women continue to lose ground and this regressive pattern has negatively affected women's struggle against pervasive and deeply entrenched gender relations in our societies. Inequalities based on gender identity, and exacerbated by class, ethnic, racial and other divisions, are a feature of all societies. To achieve full recognition of women’s rights and for people centred development to work it needs to also address socially constructed power relations, norms and practices which inform family dynamics, communities, religious bodies, states, institutions, and political parties as well as mass and social movements.

The UN theme this year to “Empower Women – End Hunger and Poverty” emphasises the full circle we have come in our quest for gender equality; particularly in addressing the impact of poverty on women. This also raises the political question of women’s agency and their role in poverty eradication and progress in human and social development. It is ironic that women continue to account for 70% of the world’s poor[i]. Reports also show that when a substantial proportion of the global population is poor, poverty cannot be detached from the dynamics of development[ii].

A particular emphasis is needed in addressing the disproportionate burden of poverty and the denial of women’s human rights. Women's poverty often results in widespread violations of their human rights. Lack of access to food security, adequate housing, healthcare, clean water and sanitation, education, employment, safe working environment and equal pay amongst others violates the human rights of women and makes them vulnerable to poverty. This leads to denial of the fundamental right to a life of dignity and non-discrimination.

Women’s participation and contribution to development, economic growth and poverty eradication is undervalued. It continues to be hampered by illiteracy, vulnerability to family and social strictures, violence, denial of access to resources and relegation to a reproductive role, amongst other factors. Further, policies, plans and programmes aimed at reducing poverty and increasing economic empowerment view women as either the recipient of aid/benefits or as instruments in advancing economic development[iii], instead of active participants,[iv].

International human rights treaties, in particular the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recognise the obligations of states parties to take “all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women”. This includes ensuring women’s equal rights with men in “education”, “right to work”, “access to healthcare and adequate healthcare facilities”, “bank loans”, “credit”, and to benefit from “social security programmes” as well as to “enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply, transport and communications"[v].

Noting the layers of discrimination, it is essential to locate women’s rights at the heart of development and also increase the participation of women within the development process. This is important in order to lead to women’s empowerment and full and equal participation in all spheres of society, including participation in decision-making processes, and access to power, which are fundamental for the achievement of gender and social justice, substantive democracy and peace for all[vi].

Given the current trajectory of the development discourse, it is pivotal for women to maximise the opportunities and spaces and participate as full agents of change in development and poverty eradication. The ongoing processes[vii] of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)[viii] and the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20)[ix], Millennium Development Goals (MDG) review as well as the ICPD review will be an opportunity to ensure that a feminist perspective, placing women at the centre of a people-centred development model, is adopted.

This day provides a timely opportunity to reinforce the substantial progress needed to ensure a holistic rights based approach for the advancement of women’s human rights within the development agenda.  There must be recognition for the need to eliminate all discrimination, and the promotion of substantive equality to establish women’s human rights as the heart of empowerment of women. This must be central in the development of policies, plans and programmes aimed at ending hunger and eradicating poverty. We call on all our states and UN agencies tasked to develop these policies/programmes to adopt a rights based approach and ensure the full participation of ALL women!

[i] Reynolds, Margaret, Human Rights and Poverty Eradication: A Talisman for the Commonwealth,  Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
[ii] Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics, UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) study, 2010
[iii] Key Demands from Women’s Rights Organizations to the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (Busan, Korea, 2011) and the Development Cooperation Forum (2012)
[iv] International Women’s Organizations Consultation on Development Cooperation, Women’s Rights and Gender Equality held in Brussels, Belgium, 9-10 June 2011. The consultation was hosted by WIDE Network and co-organized with the BetterAid Coordination Group: the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and Coordinadora de la Mujer from Bolivia.
[v] Articles 2, 3, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16
[vi] Key Demands from Women’s Rights Organizations to the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (Busan, Korea, 2011) and the Development Cooperation Forum (2012)
[vii] These processes aim to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date, the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address new and emerging challenges.
[viii] considering the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges' as its priority theme during its fifty-sixth session from the 27 February – 9 March 2012
[ix] The Conference will focus on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development.


VIA CAMPESINA - INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY 2012: Globalise the struggle! Globalise hope!

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day on which we honour the memory of the many women workers, both rural and urban, who sacrificed their lives in the struggle for their rights, for justice, in order to end all discriminations and the social, economic and political inequalities that are among the underlying aspects of the development of global capitalism. It is also a day for celebrating the important progress that has been achieved in women’s struggles for emancipation.

March 8th is also a day of mobilisation and reaffirmation of the unlimited, on-going commitment to the struggle to end the patriarchal, capitalist system that is more oppressive to women in all spheres of society all over the world. This huge struggle continues to drive the urgent reflection of both men and women in La Via Campesina on how to progress, and change to achieve the type of society that we wish to build, with a new balance of power in social relationships where men and women have equal opportunities, rights and duties.

The Via Campesina message

We welcome the International Day of Action and Struggle that the Women of La Via Campesina are holding at global level. The objective is to denounce the advances of capitalism in agriculture via transnational companies as well as the destructive model of agribusiness that is threatening not only peoples’ food sovereignty, but also the environment. It is directly threatening women’s lives and freedom.

La Via Campesina clearly wishes to state that it is essential to raise the level of awareness of all men and women, by emphasizing the important role and the historical and current value of women’s contribution to small-scale family/peasant farming. They play an important part in preserving ancestral know-how and seeds, and guarantee the biodiversity and food sovereignty of peoples. It is highly regrettable that rural women, who account for 80% of food production, only own 2% of the land.

As La Via Campesina women and men struggle together to decry male chauvinist attitudes at both political and economic levels in the capitalist, patriarchal society that dominates today’s world. We shall mobilise to fight the offensive of the transnational companies that are grabbing our territories, our resources and our work, and shall continue to build a society based on equality and justice.

We share the challenges of integral agrarian reform, ending land-grabbing and guaranteeing social justice that will serve as a means of consolidating food and environmental sovereignty, and ending violence against women. We struggle to achieve agriculture based on agro-ecology, defending our land, water and seeds, and against the commodification of life.

La Via Campesina says Stop Violence against Women!

Women’s struggles against agribusiness, agrochemicas and for food sovereignty, health and women’s sovereignty!

Globalise the struggle! Globalise hope!



International Women’s Day 2012
“Empower rural women: End hunger and poverty”

This International Women’s Day, I join women around the globe in solidarity for human rights, dignity and equality. This sense of mission drives me and millions of people around the world to pursue justice and inclusion. Looking back at the first year of UN Women, I applaud every individual, government and organization working for women’s empowerment and gender equality. I promise the highest commitment moving forward. The creation of UN Women has coincided with deep changes in our world –from rising protests against inequality to uprisings for freedom and democracy in the Arab world.

These events have strengthened my conviction that a sustainable future can only be reached by women, men and young people enjoying equality together. From the government that changes its laws, to the enterprise that provides decent work and equal pay, to the parents that teach their daughter and son that all human beings should be treated the same, equality depends on each of us.

During the past century, since the observance of the first International Women’s Day, we have witnessed a transformation in women’s legal rights, educational achievements, and participation in public life. In all regions, countries have expanded women’s legal entitlements. Women have taken many steps forward. More women are exercising leadership in politics and business, more girls are going to school, and more women survive childbirth and can plan their families.

Yet while tremendous progress has been made, no country can claim to be entirely free from gender-based discrimination. This inequality can be seen in persistent gender wage gaps and unequal opportunities, in low representation of women in leadership in public office and the private sector, in child marriage and missing girls due to son preference, and in continuing violence against women in all its forms.

Nowhere are disparities and barriers greater than in rural areas for women and girls. Rural women and girls comprise one in four people worldwide. They work long hours with little or no pay and produce a large proportion of the food grown, especially in subsistence agriculture. They are farmers, entrepreneurs and leaders, and their contributions sustain their families, communities, nations and all of us.

Yet they face some of the worst inequities in access to social services and land and other productive assets. And this deprives them and the world of the realization of their full potential, which brings me to my main point on this International Women’s Day. No enduring solution to the major changes of our day—from climate change to political and economic instability—can be solved without the full empowerment and participation of the world’s women. We simply can no longer afford to leave women out.

Women’s full and equal participation in the political and economic arena is fundamental to democracy and justice, which people are demanding. Equal rights and opportunity underpin healthy economies and societies.

Providing women farmers with equal access to resources would result in 100 to 150 million fewer hungry people. Providing women with income, land rights and credit would mean fewer malnourished children. Studies show that higher levels of gender equality correlate positively with higher levels of per capita gross national product. Opening economic opportunities to women would significantly raise economic growth and reduce poverty.

The time is now.

Every human being has the right to live in peace and dignity. Every human being has the right to shape their future and the futures of their countries. That is the call for equality that I hear wherever I go. For this reason UN Women will place special focus this year on advancing women’s economic empowerment and political participation and leadership. We look forward to continued strong partnership with women, men and young people and with governments, civil society and the private sector.

Today on International Women’s Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to women’s rights and move forward with courage and determination. Let us defend human rights, the inherent dignity and worth of the human person, and the equal rights of men and women.


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