In commemorating International Women’s Day on March 8, various world leaders and experts noted the progress the international community has achieved in advancing women’s rights and gender equality since the first International Women’s Day 100 years ago. The same personalities, however, also emphasized that tremendous work is still required to address existing cultural and social gender gaps.
As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, women are still second-class citizens in “too many countries and societies.” In his message to mark this year’s celebration, Ban called for urgent action to provide women equal access to education, health care, training, science and technology, and political opportunities.
Why is it important to invest in women and girls? Development leaders provided a plethora of reasons.
“It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing. Women and girls drive our economies. They build peace and prosperity. Investing in them means investing in global economic progress, political stability, and greater prosperity for everyone — the world over,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Michelle Bachelet, executive director of the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or U.N. Women, explained: “I have seen myself what women, often in the toughest circumstances, can achieve for their families and societies if they are given the opportunity. The strength, industry and wisdom of women remain humanity’s greatest untapped resource.”
Donors and various international aid organizations are hinting they are up to the challenge. They have outlined existing and new initiatives aimed at advancing women’s empowerment. The African Development Bank, for instance, established a scholarship fund to support girls’ education while the U.K. Department for International Development unveiled a new strategy for women’s empowerment that focuses on four areas: delaying first pregnancy and supporting safe childbirth, securing incomes and rights for girls and women, getting girls through secondary school, and preventing violence against girls and women.
Meantime, UNICEF has launched its 2011 funding appeal worth $1.4 billion to help children and women caught in crises. The U.S. Agency for International Development said it will update its Women in Development policy in the coming months to help provide new guidance on integrating gender equality and female empowerment initiatives into project designs and country strategies.
How effective these new, as well as existing, efforts will be remains to be seen. Women around the world are definitely hopeful that progress will come soon. As Bachelet puts it, “We simply cannot afford to wait another 100 years” to unlock women’s potential.