March 8 is observed as International Women's Day. It would seem odd that a day of the year is marked to remind us of the presence and contributions of fifty percent of the human race. But it is odder still that it has taken centuries of effort by courageous women (and men) to overcome entrenched social, cultural, economic and political barriers, in order to make visible and audible this very same presence. It may not be amiss then, to cull a day from the calendar to celebrate the slow and hard won emergence from invisibility and silence, of one half of humanity.
By way of history, in the first decade of the twentieth century, March 8 was one day in the life of women who were fighting for the right to vote. Later, this day was transformed into one of remembrance and expression of solidarity among women. A hundred years later, in the first decade of the twenty first century, much still remains to be done to attain equality of opportunity and outcome for women vis-à-vis men in every sphere of life - as caregivers, workers, educators and individuals.
These are well known probabilities: if you are a girl, rural, tribal and a poor citizen of a poor country, your chances of receiving even basic education are two out of hundred. Your urban sister fares only slightly better. If you are a mother about to give birth in a village where your only help is a traditional midwife, you can die with the same likelihood as the toss of a coin showing heads. As a worker, you are more likely to find yourself doing low-paying dead-end jobs, with less pay to take home than the man who works side-by-side with you. This is true even if you belong to the richest nation in the world. They may say that the gender gap has narrowed. You may wonder why no one sees how it persists.
Then there is violence and there is violence. Civil wars and armed conflicts affect women and girls more than they do men, though all are crimes against all of humanity. But behind the closed doors of a home too, violence occurs everyday. Count all the world's refugees and the domestically abandoned and displaced - the majority are women. The balance sheet of rights and wrongs, fairness and unfairness for women is very long.
Yet, given such tough odds, given so little room to maneuver, women continue with all their strength and resilience to uphold more than their side of the bargain. As mothers, teachers, caregivers, household heads, workers, entrepreneurs, they contribute to the productivity and reproductivity of community and society. As peace-makers and preservers of social order, they keep hope and even life alive during civil wars and other conflicts. And all over the world, from homes, fields, and factories, from NGOs and national and international fora, and as academics, activists and politicians, women continue to struggle for their right to be recognized as the other equal half of humanity.
A historian in describing the status of women called them those who could not say no. A poet in his divine use of words exhorted that where women are worshipped, there gods reside. It is not a pedestal nor deification that women have fought for. Their struggle has always been for the right to say yes. But the poet was not altogether off the mark - presumably he saw how giving women their rightful equal status would lead to the greater well-being of everyone - not only as a matter of law (which is important) but in material resources, in education, in right to land and property; and in the ending of discrimination and disregard, and in helping them harness their productive and creative selves as much as men, all of society would prosper. It is proper then that there is a day which we call women's day. It would be better still to not let it be just one day.