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OPINION: International Women’s Day is not a 'Hallmark holiday'

by Regan Ralph | Fund for Global Human Rights
Saturday, 7 March 2020 13:00 GMT

Abortion-rights campaigners attend a rally against new restrictions on abortion passed by legislatures in eight states including Alabama and Georgia, in New York City, U.S., May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Women around the world should join forces to make International Women’s Day more than a 'Hallmark holiday'

Regan Ralph is the chief executive and president of the Fund for Global Human Rights.

If ever there were a year to remember and reclaim the roots of International Women’s Day, 2020 is it.

Around the world, authoritarian strongmen are rejecting years of progress to trample on women’s rights.

In the United States, the vaunted “pink wave” of women in government still makes up less than a quarter of Congress and abortion rights are on the chopping block—again.

Yet few Americans observe International Women’s Day and even fewer remember why it began.

International Women’s Day was born out of protests by working-class women in the United States in the early twentieth century. Then, as now, women everywhere understood the meaning of mistreatment and inequality. Tired of poor working conditions, sexual harassment, and unequal pay—sound familiar? —the protests spread across Europe.

But in the United States, the galvanizing nature of women’s day ebbed as quickly as it spread. The outbreak of two world wars diminished the spirit of international solidarity and the Cold War drove a wedge between women on either side of the ideological divide. When Representative Maxine Waters introduced legislation to make March 8 a national holiday in 1994, the bill never left committee.

Instead, commercial culture has subsumed International Women’s Day. Corporations cash in on social media kudos—touting dubious feminist credentials— while brands hawk deals on chocolate, makeup, and flowers. Like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, March 8 is booming business for marketing managers, and social media feeds overflow with emojis, sponsored content, and empty platitudes.

Elsewhere, however, the revolutionary spirit lives on. As a lifelong advocate for women, I am inspired, every year, by the radical ways women mark International Women’s Day across the globe.

In Mexico, where ten women are killed every day, activists clad in symbolic green bandanas are taking to the streets to demand change. They have called for women to strike on March 9, making International Women’s Day the prelude to a Day Without Women—a powerful display of protest with tremendous economic consequences.

In India, although International Women’s Day is widely celebrated, the country’s female labor force participation rate is among the lowest in the world. Activists mark March 8 with demonstrations of solidarity with women workers. In Jaipur, for example, members of the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgaar Union will gather to celebrate women’s rights as workers.

From violence to discrimination, persistent structural and cultural barriers to women’s equality still exist everywhere.

The rise of global authoritarianism has also opened the door for a new wave of right-wing strongmen who have made clear their desire to rollback women’s rights.

Women in the United States know what it’s like to confront the hostile agenda of a populist leader.

President Donald Trump’s administration has moved to block visas for pregnant women, eliminated protections for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses, and reimposed a global gag rule that limits federal funds and international aid to groups that even educate women about abortion.

American women want to be seen and heard—the annual Women’s March is proof of that. International Women’s Day gives us another chance to challenge such regressive rhetoric and policies and stand in solidarity with women activists across the globe.

Let’s stand with women like Tina Musuya, who has pioneered ways to prevent violence against women in Uganda. Or Miriam Miranda, who has defended the rights of indigenous people in Honduras from the devastating impacts of corrupt development projects. Or Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, whose seminal reporting at the New York Times revealed the horrifying depths of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes and help spurred the #MeToo movement to demand accountability and justice.

On March 8, sign off social media and forget about the chocolate, makeup, and flowers. Let 2020 be the year that we join forces with women around the world to make International Women’s Day more than a 'Hallmark holiday'.