For the past 5000 years, give or take a century or two, there has been a persistent tendency to leave unexamined the impact that social, economic, environmental, and military policies have on the lives of women throughout the world. As a result, women make up the majority of those living in poverty, millions of women have died needlessly due to lack of healthcare and safe living conditions and there is a worldwide pandemic of violence against women.
For those reasons, International Women’s Day (IWD), which is observed on March 8 is a time not only to celebrate women’s lives and achievements, but also a chance to join hands in solidarity with women around the globe and to focus much needed attention on the many problems women face today.
It has been said that the health of a society is measured by how it treats its women. With one in three women throughout the world likely to experience sexual assault during her lifetime, it is not a stretch to say that this society is in crisis. In recognition of the systemic and pervasive violence that impacts the lives of women every day, the United Nations’ theme for its 2007 observance of IWD is “Ending Impunity for Violence against Women.” As Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues has pointed out, “When you rape, beat, maim, mutilate, burn, bury, and terrorize women, you destroy the essential life energy on the planet. You force what is meant to be open, trusting, nurturing, creative, and alive to be bent, infertile, and broken.”
Here in the U.S. for the sixth year in a row, President Bush’s annual budget request for funding the Violence Against Women Act once again falls short of the amount of its Congressional authorization. And while the President will no doubt serve up the usual annual platitudes about honoring women on March 8th, his administration has, as it has every year since 2001, also requested cuts in funding for maternal and child health as well as family planning.
Meanwhile, more than half a million women worldwide will die this year from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth, including 68,000 from illegal and unsafe abortions. According to The Lancet, “an estimated 90% of deaths from unsafe abortions and 20% of obstetric mortality could be avoided with improved access to contraception. Yet the latest figures show that donor funding for family planning has decreased by 36%.”
It is particularly ironic that the supposedly liberated women of Afghanistan suffer the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world with 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births. In the U.S. more than 20 million women live in poverty and out of 173 countries, the U.S. is one of only five countries that has no guaranteed maternity leave. The U.S. is also one of only seven countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
The ongoing militarism that plagues our planet is also extremely detrimental to women. Violence during war and conflict is not incidental, it is systemic. Rape, a cheap alternative to bullets, has always been a de facto weapon of war. Women who are raped during conflict are particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Conflict frequently leaves women without homes, food and medical care and many become refugees. Obtaining work may become difficult, forcing many women into prostitution in order to survive. Hundreds of thousands of women are sexually trafficked every year and violence makes it impossible for hundreds of thousands of girls to attend school.
Pollution is also an important problem for women. Recent studies have found numerous toxins in breast milk and one out of six women in the U.S. has enough mercury in their wombs to cause mental retardation, autism and other diseases. Women who breathe polluted air are four times more likely to have children who develop cancer. Other pollutants such as PCBs, dioxin and DDT are known to impact reproductive health and have been linked to breast cancer. Chemical and nuclear weapons impact women’s reproductive health, causing low birth weights and gross birth abnormalities.
It is for all of these reasons that on March 8th, we once again affirm the human rights of women throughout the world as well as celebrate their lives and accomplishments.
*This essay is adapted from commentary by the author that was originally published by the Louisville Eccentric Observer. “We Stand with the Women of the World” is the theme for the 2007 Louisville, Kentucky/US observance of IWD.
LUCINDA MARSHALL is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org.