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International Women's Day: Going Strong at 100!

As we celebrate 100 years of International Women's Day on March 8, 2010, we highlight how the day has been marked in the past and how it is being marked this year.

By Kathambi Kinoti

On March 8, 2010, women will celebrate the one hundredth International Women’s Day (IWD). Since 1910[i] one day has been set aside every year to celebrate, honour and take stock of the situation of women’s rights all over the world. IWD arose out of the work of labour movements in North America and Europe and is now observed on all continents. In the United States of America, the Socialist Party of America set aside the first national Women’s Day in 1909 to honour garment workers who the previous year had gone on strike to demand better working conditions. The following year, at a meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, Socialist International set aside a day- to be observed internationally - to call for universal suffrage for women. In 1911 this day was marked in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. At least one million people attended rallies in support of women’s right to vote, hold public office, work and have access to vocational training. They called for an end to discrimination against women in the workplace.

It was only in 1975 that the United Nations (UN) established the tradition of observing March 8 as IWD. That year marked the beginning of the UN Decade for Women, a Decade that saw three UN conferences that made huge strides for women's rights: Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985). In 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States in accordance with their national traditions. The General Assembly gave two reasons for adopting the resolution:

  • To recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the full participation, equality and development of women;

  • To acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security.

WomenWatch observes:

“For the women of the world, the Day’s symbolism has a wider meaning; it is an occasion to review how far they have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development. It is also an opportunity to unite, network and mobilize for meaningful change.”

March 8 remains the most common date for observance of the Day which is now an official holiday in several countries and is commemorated in one form or another in most countries in the world.

Taking stock: IWD at the CSW

This year marks both the 100th anniversary of IWD, as well as the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) which is being reviewed at CSW. The BPfA - like all other women's rights instruments - owes its existence in large part to the activism of women through the years. Although this activism happens every day of the year IWD is an occasion to pay tribute to women's rights work and draw attention to the challenges that women continue to encounter.

Several events marking IWD will be held at CSW. The UN, which held an early celebration of the Day on March 3, 2010, selected the theme of "Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All." To mark IWD, the UN hosted events looking back over 15 years to assess the progress made on women’s rights.

Spotlight on Haiti and Iran

This year, special attention will focus on Haiti. The Caribbean nation is still struggling to cope with the aftermath of the January 12, 2010 earthquake that demolished much of its capital city Port-au-Prince and its environs. The earthquake claimed the lives of three feminist icons: Anne Marie Coriolan, Magali Marcelin and Myriam Merlet. Activities in their memory will take place in Haiti, New York and other places around the world. Women’s organizations in Haiti will have a memorial with testimonies, a mural and a slide show. The Haitian women’s movement has called upon women’s groups in all other countries to join in their celebration and memorialisation of the departed feminists, as well as affirm the struggles of surviving feminists, by organizing their own memorial activities. A statement by Campamento Feminista Internacional reads in part:

“We are calling organizations throughout the world to join us that day to honour and mourn our loss of feminist activists which will allow us to revive and recreate momentum of the Haitian women’s movement to continue the important work of our fallen leaders and the legacy they have left for those of us who continue the work.”

During the 54th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a number of women’s rights organizations will hold a roundtable[ii] to discuss the situation in Haiti. One of the issues to be discussed is the concern that current humanitarian relief measures can reinforce unequal power structures, militarized responses and dependency. Women’s organizations are working to ensure the gender responsiveness of relief and reconstruction work in the country and they will propose a resolution to be adopted by CSW regarding Haiti and Haitian women.

Iran will also be the focus of women’s organizations all over the globe. A group of Iranian feminists and women’s rights activists have sent out a call for solidarity action by their sisters throughout the world. Their statement highlights the increased repression of the democracy movement since the disputed presidential elections of 2009. Activists are routinely arrested, tortured, raped, imprisoned and sometimes executed. Over the past thirty years there has been a gradual erosion of women’s rights in Iran. In their statement the women say:

“On the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Iran is not a signatory, the women of Iran are facing increased discrimination ... Iranian women have long demanded freedom and gender equality; they have employed both individual and group strategies, initiated various campaigns, and faced insults, threats, arrests and imprisonment in the process. Many of these women are currently in prison.”

The Iranian women suggest various actions that women in other countries can take to demonstrate solidarity with them this IWD:

  • Focus on the situation of women in Iran in publications, blogs, public lectures, demonstrations, and community gatherings;

  • Organise local events that focus on the current struggle in Iran as part of the World March of Women; [iii]

  • Feature the slogan “Freedom and Gender Equality in Iran” on websites, Op-Eds, flyers, advertisements, public demonstrations, as well as in other innovative actions taken by activists, artists, feminists, and intellectuals.[iv]

[i] See World Women March, “International Woman’s Day: In Search of the Lost Memory,” and Women Watch, “History of International Women’s Day.”

[ii] Organized by the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA), the Feminist International Solidarity Camp, The Huairou Commission and AWID.

[iii] See more information on the World March of Women here.

[iv] For more information, send an email to:

[v] Read more in a blog post by AWID’s Gabby de Cicco here.

To read about other activities taking place this IWD see this section of the AWID website