Why an international day for women, when there’s none for men? Well, pretty much for the same reason that there is an international children’s day (14th November), though there is none for adults. The logic is simple. Putative benefits to those in the margins are necessary to keep the marginalised from rising. The second-classing of women and children in patriarchy gives both of them a right to having a day in the year dedicated to them. Men and adults don’t need such days, for they have power and authority, which implies that all other days in the year are theirs by right . . .
Well, that’s true to a large extent. But, women of the world haven’t had even this one day that easily. There is a history of struggle. This day first became known as the International Working Women’s Day. (I’ve often wondered whether there is any non-working woman, irrespective of whether they earn an income – but that needs to be kept in the parking lot for the moment.) For now, the focus is on the history of struggle that has won women this day as their special one.
Like most days connected with the struggles for rights, there is a strong socialist connection with the emergence of 8th March as the International Women’s Day. The first ever National Women’s Day was celebrated in the USA on 28th February, 1909, following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America. On that historic day, 15,000 women marched demanding shorter hours of work, better pay and voting rights. During the International Women’s Conference in 1910 that preceded the Socialist Second International held in Copenhagen, the proposal for declaring one calendar day as the International Women’s Day was proposed and supported by 100 women delegates from 17 countries. No date was fixed, though. It was viewed as a strategy to promote equal rights for women, including voting rights and the right to hold public office. The next year, on 19th March, over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland demonstrated in favour of equal rights for women and against sex discrimination in employment.
American socialists continued to celebrate National Women’s Day on the last Sunday of February. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1913 in Russia on the last Sunday of February as per the Julian calendar then used in Russia. In 1917, the same celebration fell on 8th March in the Gregorian calendar which had been introduced by the February Revolution in Russia. After the October Revolution in Russia, Lenin declared 8th March as the International Women’s Day, as proposed by his Bolshevik comrade Alexandra Kollontai. Chinese communists started celebrating it from 1922 and Spanish communists from 1936. It became accepted in the west, and subsequently over much of the globe from 1977, when the United Nations General Assembly invited all member countries to proclaim 8th March as the UN Day of women’s rights and world peace.
In many countries of the world, 8th March is also an official holiday; in many countries, it is not. In many countries, women have had to fight for the right to vote, which were denied to them when those countries transitioned from monarchy to democracy. In other countries, as in India, all citizens including women have had the right to vote from the very moment of independent India’s Constitution being formulated. Despite such differences, all women of the world stand on the receiving end of injustice, though the forms of manifestation may be varied. Just to drive the point home, 70% of the world’s poor are women. Pay packets for the same amount of work continue to be less for women in many parts of the world and school text books still have time sums stating, ‘two women do the work of one man in XX numbers of days . . .’ Government supported public health programmes in developing and underdeveloped countries typically cover women in the reproductive age only, as if pre-menarche and post-menstrual health for women is not a concern at all. Reports of girls and women being singled out for rape, torture and imprisonment during wars and conflicts are not unknown to us even in modern times. (In case a clue would help, think of Bosnian girls and women being systematically raped since war began in April 1992. Rape of Rwandan teenage girls by the militia also made international news.) Sex selective abortion and female infanticide continue to be realities in many countries including India.
Examples of this imbalance in the distribution of power, justified and reinforced by myriad social norms, codes of conduct, fairytales and lullabies, so-called ‘jokes’ etc could continuead infinitum. What is good is that the white ribbon campaign, by men who oppose violence and discrimination against women, has also been gaining ground. Human beings, as it happens, are like a bird, with women and men forming its two wings. The flight to glory will remain a pipe dream unless both wings are equally strong. Since one of the wings still faces too many handicaps, it is important to dedicate at least one calendar day to remember this simple need for equality between the sexes.
Dr. Paramita Banerjee, based in Kolkata, is the Associate Director of Programmes, SAATHII. A PhD in Philosophy, she has been working on gender and sexuality, HIV/AIDS, adolescent and youth development, and child rights since the late 1980s. Prior to entering the development sector, Dr. Banerjee was engaged in teaching at undergraduate and post graduate levels. She has also worked in renowned publishing houses. Her expertise lies in research, capacity building, participatory evaluation, strategic planning, leadership development, community mobilisation and documentation. As a MacArthur Fellow for Leadership Development, she implemented a leadership development programme with adolescents living in red light areas. The community-based organisation, DIKSHA, grew from that initiative, and is currently being led by those young adults. She has also published translations of Bengali poetry and prose along with philosophical articles, essays on theatre etc. She loves travel, cinema, books and ‘adda’