International Women’s Day: Recognising the Positives

Wednesday, 8 April, 2009 - 10:33

Celebrating International Women’s Day reminds us that we need to maintain a careful balance between optimistic acknowledgements of women’s achievements on the one hand, and a realistic evaluation of the complex challenges women face in their everyday lives, on the other.

International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated on 8 March, under the United Nations (UN) theme ‘Women and men united to end violence against women and girls’. IWD has been celebrated since 1909, after 15 000 women marched through New York City to demand better pay and shorter working hours. While IWD used to be dedicated primarily to the challenges that women faced, in the new millennium significant attention is now also paid to the achievements and progress that women have made in all areas of life. The day now serves as an official celebration of women’s social, economic and political achievements. However, women still face significant challenges, specifically those in developing countries.

This month’s newsletter is based on the re-realisation that we need to maintain a careful balance between optimistic acknowledgements of women’s achievements on the one hand, and a realistic evaluation of the complex challenges women face in their everyday lives, on the other.

Balance is the key

It is easy to get caught up in the myriad of negativity associated with gender issues in Africa. Many African women walk a difficult path each day, experiencing physical and emotional abuse, the effects of climate change, patriarchal thought systems, and/or institutionalised discrimination. When one considers the structural elements that allow and facilitate these injustices, such as patriarchy, culture and stereotypical thinking, despair seems to be the only answer to those who want to change the world. After all, it is a mammoth task, if not impossible, to change ‘culture’ and the way people think and societies function. In addition, it is a fact that the improvement of African women’s lives will generally require financial resources and investment, as well as proper management of these funds. When one considers all these obstacles to gender equality and ending violence against women and girls, it seems that wanting to change the world to make it a better place for women to live in may be an impossible goal.

I have realised though, that such a negative, one-sided view of the struggle for gender equality and the women’s cause in general is not helpful at all. It does not acknowledge the women who dedicate their lives to the improvement of other women’s lives, nor does it set out to learn from the many successful initiatives that have made a difference already. IWD reminds us that great strides have been made regarding the improvement of women’s lives, strides that we should be thankful for. The fact that ‘women’s rights’ is at least a recognised concept in most countries is a significant foundation for activists to work from. The increase of women in government positions, albeit a slow increase, is a starting point that could lead to massive changes in every society. The key to progress is thus an attitude that recognises the challenges on the road ahead with a simultaneous recognition of the positive achievements of the past and the opportunities and challenges that the future holds.

International Women’s Day celebrations

This year, 983 recorded celebratory events were held in 63 countries across the globe. Those who attended the events celebrated the progress that has been made on women’s issues in their respective countries and regions, and also emphasised that much more progress is required. Countries do not have to adopt the UN theme, but have the opportunity to conceptualise themes every year to suit their particular contexts. Zambia adopted the theme, ‘Equal sharing of responsibilities between men and women, including care giving in the context of HIV/AIDS’. Their celebrations emphasised that caring for the sick is not solely a woman’s duty, and that women and men need to share responsibilities in the home. Women were also commended for their role in the functioning of society.

Controversially, the Ugandan NGO, Action for Development (ACFODE), decided to boycott IWD celebrations. This year Executive Director, Regina Bafaki, stated that the more than 15 organisations that constitute the NGO felt they had no reason to celebrate, but rather many reasons to mourn, inter alia, the recent sharp increase in cases of violence against women and girls. The women handed over a petition to Speaker of Parliament Edward Ssekandi, to highlight the important and disturbing nature of their concern. In another part of the country, the Margaret Trowel School of Industrial and Fine Arts focused on the positive state of women as citizens through its annual IWD art exhibition on the virtues of women. Dr George William Kyeyune, Dean of the School, said the exhibition is meant to stimulate debate on gender issues.

Sierra Leone celebrations emphasised the need for renewed commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Fred van Leeuwen, General Secretary of Education International, said, "The time has come to invest in people and focus global recovery strategies on social justice - women are central to this process”. It was also noted by many that commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is in danger of decreasing due to the global economic crisis and associated shrinking of funds. In Rwanda, Chief Justice Aloysia Cyanzaire said that women’s challenge is to strive even harder to maximise their potential, in all areas of life. In Liberia, the first African woman President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, opened the Angie Brooks Centre on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security. This event was part of the country’s IWD celebration. The Centre will support the implementation of women leaders’ initiatives for the improvement of all Liberian women’s lives.

Looking ahead to 2010

Most African countries hosted some events in celebration of IWD. Some emphasised the need for improvement and increased efforts, while others focused on the progress made during the last 12 months. While some women used the IWD to emphasise their concerns with women’s issues in their societies, many other celebrations commended women for their achievements and encouraged them to keep up the good work. It is important to keep both sides of the issue in mind when we think about women’s lives. Much has been achieved, but much remains to be done. May the 12 months ahead, before the next IWD, provide many opportunities for change and improvement, so that there will be more progress to celebrate in 2010.

Charlotte Sutherland is the Research Manager: Gender Issues in Africa, at Consultancy Africa Intelligence. The April edition of the Gender Issues in Africa Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political, and economic happenings in Africa. For more information see or Alternatively, visit to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, three-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.

NGO Services

NGO Services

NGO Events