Why the World Should Celebrate Women Every Day

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By Teresa Fogelberg

March 8, International Women’s Day, is a festive day in many parts of the world. In Africa and Asia, female employees get a day off. They receive flowers as a token of recognition for their role in the economy. Not so in Western Europe. In Amsterdam, where I am based, Women’s Day is either completely ignored by media and public opinion, or made slightly ridiculous. “Who needs a special day? We don’t need that: Our women have no problems. The era of feminism is so past century.”

As an anthropologist I was trained by famous scholars like Margaret Mead, that the relationships between men and women form a universal societal and economic ordering principle. However diverse these gender relations are from society to society, they contain a fundamental element of asymmetry of power, to the disadvantage of girls and women, throughout history and in all societies, until today.

Thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt, who 70 years ago included discrimination on the basis of sex into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world embarked upon a long journey to improve women’s lives and to fight global gender inequality. The first 25 years of my international career at the U.N. and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs were dedicated to that struggle.

During those years I learned three things.

1. There is progress but still heartbreaking disappointment

The women of the world are still very far from “the full enjoyment of all human rights and the fundamental freedoms throughout their life cycle” (U.N. Conference in Beijing, 1995).

The modest improvements over the past decades, such as in life expectancy, level of education and reproductive health, have been outweighed by newly unveiled atrocities and abuses of women.

Today, there are 60 million more men than women in the world. Globally, women earn approximately 77 percent of what men earn, according to the International Labor Organization. Around a third of women worldwide experience physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence, in both developed and developing countries (PDF).

Harassment and sexual exploitation on the work floor are systemic. Many armed conflicts bring women in as part of the cause, and violence against women is often used as a weapon.

This should be No. 1 on the political agenda. It is not.

2. Women are incredibly strong and resilient

During my years in Africa, I learned how strong women are. I spent eight years in West Africa and the Sahel, in many activities for the U.N. Amongst others, I supported an inspiring director of Women’s Empowerment, in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, and her all-female team, raising awareness and training women’s groups across this vast desert country in a period of heavy famine. I also gave support to women in large agriculture schemes and food security policy.

From all of them I learned that women do not only need a room of their own, as Virginia Woolf stated. They also need their own income and financial independence in order to invest in themselves and their children.

That’s what the women in Ghana, Mali and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania taught me. However poor they were, they would strive for some kind of income for themselves. And figures show that women in these circumstances invest 90 percent of their income into their families or communities.

3. Data serves as a liberator of women

I love statistics. Women need to be made visible through data and have access to decision-making bodies to enable change. Data, goals and indicators have served to unveil hidden discrimination and denial by political and corporate leaders.

I truly believe that the inclusion of specific goals for women and girls in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals and now in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as indicators, have helped. In the SDGs, there is a stand-alone goal on gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women (SDG 5), as well as gender targets embedded within the other SDGs.

Today we can find a wealth of data on the position of girls and women from sources like The World’s Women, Trends and Statistics, by U.N. Statistics. That’s my favorite as well as the annual World Bank data book as well as the Progress of the World’s Women by UN Women.

Another encouraging trend is corporate reporting. GRI Standards provide guidance for companies across the world to measure gender policy, performance and impact by the corporate sector with 16 indicators on gender woven throughout GRI’s G4 Guidelines. This includes a range of topics like (equal) pay, right to organize, anti-harassment, maternity and parental facilities, training, diversity of boards, and many others.

The result is more than 30,000 reports on GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database from over 90 countries with 53 percent of G4 reporters disclosing information on economic inclusion*.

But more reporting on gender equality is needed to close the gap so that organizations can understand their impacts and take action. This type of corporate reporting on gender is not only fast growing across the world, but it is also becoming mandatory. In 2014 the EU made it mandatory for some 6,000 large companies to report on human rights and gender, as well as gender diversity on the boards of companies. This information has the power to change the lives of women all around the world.

What will I do today? I can’t give my employees a day off. But I will bring flowers to my colleagues, whether male or female, to celebrate the special women in their lives and our shared goal of gender equality. Some might think this is old fashioned, but I feel that — now more than ever — we need to reconnect with the learnings of the past to find ways to break the deadlock for a more equitable future. Men and women around the world all have a role to play.

*The data included here is based on GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database as of 1 March 2016. The data available in the database is collected by GRI in collaboration with its data partners and captures all reports of which GRI is aware.

Image credit: Flickr/U.K. Department for International Development

Teresa Fogelberg is Deputy Chief Executive of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)

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