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Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture

Last update - Saturday, March 15, 2014, 03:20 By Charles Laffiteau

It’s worth remembering that International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8 March last, was for many years called International Working Women’s Day, and was for the longest time considered by many as a ‘red’ holiday, due to its status as a national holiday in many current and former communist countries. But the inspiration for this day actually came from the United States, specifically the Socialist Party of America which, during its National Convention in Chicago of May 1908, designated the last Sunday of February for the observance of a National Women’s Day.

The party wanted to honour the 15,000 women who had marched in protest on 8 March 1908 against the horrific working conditions in New York City’s garment district. These courageous women marched under the motto ‘Bread and Roses’ – because bread symbolised their desire for better pay, and roses their desire for a shorter work week with better working conditions – and demanded the right to vote, as well as an end to the use of child labour.
Following the second National Women’s Day observance in America in 1910, other socialists from the UK and Germany were inspired to organise an International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, at which delegates agreed to organise an annual International Working Women’s Day as part of their strategy to promote equal civil and economic rights for women. While American socialists continued to celebrate the last Sunday in February, their socialist brethren in Europe held their first observance on 19 March 1911.
In fact it wasn’t until 1914, six years after those first New York protests, that International Women’s Day was first celebrated on 8 March, a date chosen primarily because it fell on a Sunday that year. But in 1917 women textile workers in Russia chose to 8 March as the specific date to celebrate International Women’s Day, as well as to mark the beginning of their ‘Bread and Peace’ demands for an end to Russia’s food shortages and involvement in World War I, which in turn led to a general strike and ultimately the Russian Revolution.
Despite its American inspiration, for the next 60 years the day was mostly restricted to the world’s communist and socialist countries. It wasn’t until 1975 that the United States and other western nations began to observe the day, when the UN first proclaimed 8 March as the United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and Peace.
In the first decade of protests in the 1910s, women won the right to vote in most European nations (with the notable exception of France) as well as the United States and Canada. Indeed, one of the primary purposes of International Women’s Day is to inspire more positive changes by celebrating the tremendous economic, political and social gains women have made over the past century in both developed and developing countries around the world.
Yet even though women have made significant gains in terms of their civil rights and working conditions, their economic rights still lag behind those of men. While we are all well aware that women in many developing countries are still struggling to obtain their civil rights, some women in more developed nations also still remain at a disadvantage when it comes to equal pay for equal work. Unfortunately, outside of the Scandinavian countries, most of the world’s women still have a long way to go if they want to achieve equal representation in politics and the communities and institutions where they live, work and worship.
At the same time, it should be acknowledged that women would have never obtained any civil and economic rights without the support of some forward-looking male political leaders and voters. So if women are ever going to achieve equal civil and economic rights, they will also need the support of forward-thinking men like Kennedy Odede, who grew up very poor in Kibera – Africa’s largest slum, on the outskirts of Nairobi – but later went on to become one of the few residents to graduate from a four-year college.
Odede eschewed more lucrative business opportunities after his studies, opting instead to return to his community where he started an organisation called Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco), aiming to provide healthcare for all of Kibera’s residents.
He developed a low-cost healthcare model that uses mostly female grassroots community leaders to oversee delivery of health programmes. Today Shofco operates a health clinic, a school for girls and a community centre that not only delivers services to over 40,000 Kibera residents, but also provides education, microfinance and job opportunities that empower Kibera’s women. This is the kind of thing International Women’s Day should be inspiring around the world.

Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas who is pursuing a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011.

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