by Sara Pilgreen
Here we are again, 102 years since the inaugural celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD). It is no secret that women, who constitute half the world’s seven billion people, also comprise the majority of the world’s absolute poor. Moreover, they are paid significantly less than their male counterparts, are confronted with outrageous rates of domestic violence, and lack an equal presence in both politics and the boardroom. In spite of this it is common knowledge that women and men alike desire change.
This is not to say that progress has not been made in the past century. Take a look back to the Arab Spring in which Tunisian women have played a critical role in the uprising and continue the fight for equality. In Rwanda, women hold 45 of the 80 seats in Parliament, furthering the female fight for representation. Women in Jamaica are outpacing men in holding high-skilled jobs such as senior officials, legislators, and managers. Just as some see the election of President Barack Obama in the United States as a symbol of progressing equality for blacks in America, some may see these trends in Tunisia, Rwanda, or Jamaica as evidence of the end of the global gender gap. However, this is far from a reality, as this issue defies simple solutions and quick actions.
The realities of what social media can produce in an age of globalization are impressive, including open petitions denouncing brutal gang rape from India to the United States and viral videos that expose child labor. Yet, while social media provides vast exposure, we must ask ourselves whether instantaneous awareness helps or hurts. Campaigns drafting petitions, activists wearing red lipstick, women offering free cupcakes to note IWD – do these actions affect anything but a fleeting recognition in our conscious? While these gestures may have good intentions, they do not adequately honor those who founded this day and their reasoning for it: to help all women who desperately seek equality.
The U.N. boldly claims that for 2013, “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.” Yes, much action is needed; however, what action will be taken? The responsibility of the media, political leaders, and individual citizens to challenge the inequalities and atrocities facing women is one place to begin. We need to recognize how such issues are framed. The perspectives of privileged citizens from developed nations, who may know little about the realities of the other half of the world beyond bite-size news clips and Facebook petitions, must change. The dehumanization of women occurs, in part, by lack of recognition that many well-intentioned citizens support global economic and political structures that perpetuate gender inequality and disempower the world’s women. The multifaceted aspects of such structures result from a confluence of sociocultural, situational, and personal factors. Global systems of inequality have existed for centuries and continue today, while we take part consciously or unconsciously. We have come to a point arguably worse than not knowing: becoming aware of an issue, yet being relatively dismissive. Perhaps we sign a petition, post on Facebook, or wear a specific color for a day. We are far enough removed from the immediate situation, yet feel content that our attention was held, if just for a second, to open our eyes to what has happened before closing them yet again to the reality.
Greater awareness and endless amounts of information regarding women around the world have thus created a paradox: yes, we may know about these issues, yet we do not act on them, save for re-tweeting someone else’s comment before posting an update of what we ate for breakfast. For example, we may concede that violence against women has structural determinants. Then what? As we process the distress we endure from reading about such violence, we enter an almost virtual world of inconsistencies, one where we forget to question the reasoning behind the structures in place, one in which we inadvertently support the system that encourages us to contribute to this paradox. Then, perhaps we agree on the comforting narrative that we, the strong open-minded citizens of the world, will see that progress is made through the assiduous application of the Western values we consider to be universal.
But how does short-circuit awareness impact the real problem, the end goal being the cessation of violence against women worldwide? This indefinite loop of awareness – through 24-hour news channels, endless sources of social media, and ceremonial days such as IWD – allows us to acknowledge instances of rape in India, sweatshop abuses in Asia or child-bride trafficking in Pakistan. Yet, we are rarely attentive to the complexity of those abuses. We certainly do not contemplate what material conditions underpin the world’s structural violence against women, and thus, social change cannot materialize in a way that actually provides sustainable alteration to the structures that perpetuate such violence. In order for real action and reform to occur, we must analyze and interrogate the structures historically and currently in place. From there, individually and collectively, as countries and continents, we will realize that structural change is needed to ameliorate the gender disparity and end violence against women. Yes, we must be aware, yes, we must question. More importantly though, we must not only process our distress and give someone a free cupcake; we must make the connection to take direct action, action called for by the U.N.
Facts and figures from The World Bank, United Nations, and Aljazeera.
Sara Pilgreen received her BA in Psychology and Communications from University of Hawaii, Hilo, in 2004. She then went on to serve in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Vanuatu where she focused on gender and development while teaching English. Before entering the combined MSW/PhD program at UCLA, Sara completed her MA at Teachers College — Columbia University in clinical psychology. Currently, Sara is in her second year of the MSW program and first year of the PhD program at Luskin School of Public Affairs.