International Women’s Day: Miles to Walk, in the US and Across the Seas

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CommonDreams.org

International Women’s Day: Miles to Walk, in the US and Across the Seas

by
Anika Rahman

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day – a day for the celebration of women worldwide. In 25 nations (including China, Afghanistan, Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam and Zambia), the day has become a national holiday, a time not only to cheer for women's advances, but also to reflect upon the many global inequalities women still face. 

We honor this day in the United States, too, and stand in solidarity with our sisters who are struggling to surmount injustice around the globe. But here at the Ms. Foundation, we know we must do more than look outward at the failures and fault-lines of equality beyond our borders. Today, this entire Women’s History Month, and throughout the year, we must take a hard look at our own country’s shortcomings. While we pride ourselves on our global leadership and our national ideals, there is no doubt that the US falls hideously short. 

Of course, we need not look far. Whether it’s Representative Chris Smith’s (R-NJ) attempt to redefine rape and set the women’s movement – and our entire country – back decades, or Congressional attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and other Title X providers, it is clear that women’s reproductive rights and health are under blatant attack. But even before the Right’s most recent assault on women’s lives, the status of women’s health in the US has lagged far behind. Did you know, for example, that over the last 20 years, deaths from pregnancy and childbirth in the United States have doubled? And need we remind you that this is taking place in a nation that spends more than any other country in the world on health care? 

And then there’s Wisconsin. While the battle over collective bargaining rights and unions is not being framed by mainstream media as a “woman’s issue,” it more than surely [E1] is. Women make up a majority of public sector workers at the state and local level – they also make up 56 per cent of the "working poor" and are most likely, alongside people of color, to benefit from union membership. As such, our friends at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research point out, women and their families stand to lose the most if workers’ rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere are dismantled. In a time of ongoing economic crisis in which women continue to lose jobs, this is an especially frightening prospect. 

The current US political and economic climate alone makes women’s fate seem especially grim. But this should not obscure the fact that women have long experienced the disproportionate impact of harmful policies and gender discrimination. No matter the decade, if you’re a woman here in the US you’re more likely than a man to be poor, to earn minimum or below minimum wage, to pay more for health insurance…and the list goes on. This while only a small percentage of us are at policymaking tables where decisions are made that directly impact our lives. 

And how do we compare to the rest of the world? Global statistics tell a striking story of just how poorly the US performs when it comes to promoting women’s well-being. Among 42 countries with “high human development” levels, the US currently ranks 37th -- in the bottom five of such countries -- in terms of gender equality according to the United Nations’ 2010 Human Development Report [pdf]. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index [pdf], which analyzes rates of economic opportunity and participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment to compile its ratings, puts the US in 19th place globally. That means women in America fare worse, by some measures, than our sisters in nations like Sri Lanka, South Africa and the Philippines, not to mention much of Western Europe and all of Scandinavia. 

The bad news continues. The US currently ranks last among the 11 industrialized nations who are members of the Group of 10 in terms of both infant and maternal mortality rates. Our current gender wage gap of 19 cents places the US 64th [pdf] in the world. And we rank 73rd in terms of women's political leadership, falling behind nations like Rwanda, Uganda and Pakistan, and tying with Bosnia. 

Frankly, it doesn't matter what list you turn to, or how you spin the data: check any of the published rankings of global inequality from a gendered perspective and nowhere will you see the US ranked in the top ten of nations closing the gender gap. Nowhere. 

Shocking? Disappointing? Certainly -- yet if you understand the realities of daily life for most women in this country, the reason we maintain our embarrassingly low rankings, year after year, is disturbingly self-evident. Just ask the nearly 150 social justice organizations we support – groups led by and for women who, either through personal experience or through the lives of their members, come face to face with this unjust reality every day. They, better than anyone else, understand how urgent the need for change is. 

Across the country, our grantees are fighting to win progressive changes that women in every corner of the world should be able to call their own. In Colorado, West Virginia, and other statehouses nationwide, they are fighting for reproductive justice, and against regressive measures that devalue women’s lives. In Wisconsin, Indiana and elsewhere, they are standing on the front lines to defend the right to collective bargaining now under attack. In Arizona, in Kentucky, and in Washington, DC, they’re taking on unjust immigration policies that disproportionately impact women and families. And at every level, whether city, state or federal, they’re fighting to ensure that women’s perspectives, and women leaders, are included at policymaking tables where key decision about our nation’s future are being made. 

So, today, as the world pauses to celebrate the achievements of women worldwide, we honor our remarkable grantees. They, some of our country’s most treasured social justice trailblazers, are exemplary models of the kind of change-makers we should all aspire to be. We believe in their voices. We believe in their vision. We believe in their power to promote women’s well-being and create the just and inclusive democracy our nation was meant to be. 

On this 100th International Women's Day, we stand with all women and girls -- down the street and around the world -- to cheer our wins and inspire us all to further action. We have come a long way… but we've got miles to walk, here in America and across the seas.

Anika Rahman is President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women.

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