Over 100 years ago, 8 March became the International Women’s Day. Trudie Knijn of Utrecht University reflects on why such a day is still needed.

Already for over one hundred years, since 1914 – the first year of the horrifying events of WWI – women have assembled on March 8 to fight for their rights; the right for equal wage, suffrage rights and the right to hold public office and to be freed from sexual abuse and exploitation. Socialist and communist women in the United States and the European continent took the initiative in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1975 the United Nations adopted the initiative by declaring it ‘The International Women’s Day’ and every year put a specific theme into focus regarding the position of women. Redistribution (poverty, hunger, the gender wage gap), recognition (sexual violence) and representation (empowerment and equal representation) are recurring issues.

It is International Women’s Day 2018 today, and over one hundred years after these first assemblies and marches, we are still confronted by extreme religiously and nationalistically inspired attacks on women’s rights in parts of Europe, the US and the Arabic countries. We also saw staff employed by the United Nations claiming sexual services from women in refugee camps in exchange for food and medicine, and employees of aid organisations like Oxfam organizing sex parties with young women and girls. Even more embarrassing are the denials and justifications by the boards of these organizations of such exploitations of women, and this scandalizing humiliation of their bodily integrity.

International and supranational organizations, such as the UN, the EU, and many others officially recognize that a lot as to be done to reach gender-equality and take initiatives to realize it not only for women, also for all other genders, like those who are part of the LGBTQI community. However, the EU fails to systematically consider the negative effects for gender-equality of economic and political decisions in other domains, such as migration policy, the mobile EU economy and austerity measures in weaker Member States. The shrinking public sectors in EU countries as a consequence of reaching financial equilibrium went at the cost of hundreds of thousands of mainly female jobs, and strict migration policies such as the limited right to family-reunification imply that ‘the human right to family life’ is denied to hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe.

In the meantime, women themselves and supportive men make the vital difference. Women all over the world associate, protest, and take initiatives to reach gender-equality at home, in the workplace, at schools, in the media and in the public arena. Last year we have seen the largest Women’s March ever in protest to the election of Donald Trump as president of the US. Moreover, the march advocated ‘human rights are women’s rights too’ and addressed the entire spectrum of immigration reform, healthcare reform, reproductive rights, the natural environment, LGBTQI rights, racial equality, freedom of religion, and workers’ rights. In over 300 US cities, more than three million women and men participated. In another 80 countries people stood up, which resulted in a total of 4,8 million people demanding justice and fairness for people of all genders, classes, races, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

In recent years this intersectional approach of marginalised populations has been developed in reaction to efforts by populist parties to divide and polarise populations. An interesting case is the way some populist parties reclaim traditional gender values to defend the national interests of population growth, while other populist parties claim gender-equality (rhetorically, not in practice) as a standard in offense to Muslim populations (Kriszan and Siim, 2018).  In spite of these populist rhetorics, women’s rights are not oppositional rights of lower educated women and men to earn a decent wage and related social security. They are also not oppositional to black people’s fights for being respected instead of ‘profiled’, and do not per definition contradict religious or ethnic cultural identities. They are not self-evidently well-protected in liberal democratic societies that associate themselves with gender-equal individual autonomy, yet at the same time allow for the commodification of care and sex work, do not well-protect migrant care workers, put too little effort in preventing human trade for sexual abuse, and still have gender wage gaps. Equal gender rights are still not guaranteed anywhere in the world, and for those reasons we still, after hundred years, need an International Women’s Day.

Kriszan, Andrea and Birte Siim (2018) ‘Gender equality and family in European populist radical-right agendas: European parliamentary debates 2014’, In Trudie Knijn and Manuela Naldini (eds.) Gender and Generational Division in EU citizenship, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing

Trudie Knijn
Utrecht University