On International Women's Day, a call for more than just awareness

International Women's Day 2015, which Google celebrated with a new Google Doodle, calls for progress that extends beyond activist hashtags.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters
Women hold up signs during an International Women's Day rally in Lahore, March 8, 2015.

This year, the United Nations' theme for International Women’s Day is "Empowering Women – Empowering Humanity: Picture It!" The holiday is an opportunity to reflect on progress that has been made toward gender equality, but it also emphasizes the importance of action, not just awareness, in creating real change.

International Women's Day, which Google acknowledged Sunday with a colorful Google Doodle featuring women in various professions, began in 1909 in New York as a socialist political rally. It has since grown to become an national holiday in more than two dozen countries.

The past year has seen several successful campaigns to raise awareness for gender equality, including #yesallwomen,  #rapecultureiswhen, and #whyistayed. But hashtags do not necessarily translate into change. 

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka gave a speech for International Women’s Day in which she calls on all countries to “step it up” in the fight for gender equality, saying that other world goals cannot go forward effectively without equal rights of all.

“Gender equality and women’s empowerment is a required condition for the success of any global agenda. It is also required for the success of sustainable development goals,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka also condemned the sluggish rate on the issue of gender equality.

After all, it has been 20 years since Hillary Clinton famously said “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights” at the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 and there is still much to accomplished, particularly in minimizing violence against women, putting women into leadership positions, and improving resources for mothers. The 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women occurring later in the week will revisit the 12 crucial areas of concern laid out in the 1995 conference.

The past two decades have seen great change in a some important areas, however.

According to UN Women, the gender gap in elementary schools worldwide has nearly disappeared, with girls and boys enrolling at almost equal rates. The ability to send girls to school has been aided by increased access to clean water in many parts of the world. Fetching water, a time consuming and dangerous task, typically falls to women and girls and previously took time away from many girls who could be in school.

Maternal mortality rates have improved by 45 percent in the last 25 years, meaning that nearly half of pregnant women who would have otherwise died in childbirth survived.

But there is still a long way to go. The gender gap widens in secondary schools. Basic pregnancy complications remain major problem, particularly in developing countries. While the number of women in government has doubled since 1995, they make up only 22 percent of legislators.

The Monitor reported that there are only 19 women currently serving as heads of state or government in the entire world, and The New York Times pointed out last week, among businesses listed on the S&P 1500 there are more CEOs named John than there are female CEOs.

At the end of her message, Mlambo-Ngcuka calls on world leaders to set an expiration date on gender equality and reach Planet 50-50 by 2030.

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