International Women’s Day: Continuing the Fight while Celebrating the Victories

a picture of Peruvian women in front of a mountain range
Peru. Women in the Colca valley. Source: Pedro Szekely, Creative Commons

Today is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change.” In her context statement about the theme, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka states that the changing world continues to shape the lives of people and “we have to be intentional about its use to positively impact the lives of women and girls. [The theme] puts innovation at the centre of efforts to reflect the needs and viewpoints of women and girls and to resolve barriers to public services and opportunities.” Innovation highlights the game-changers and activists willing to “accelerate progress for gender equality, encourage investment in gender-responsive social systems, and build services and infrastructure that meet the needs of women and girls.” The goal of today is to celebrate the incredible achievements of women and girls who seek to overcome their marginalized status in their communities, level the representation across various academic disciplines and professional fields and undo the cycles of intersectional injustices to bring about a more equitable world.

History

What started as a response to a women’s labor strike in New York 1909 became an international movement to honor the rights of women and to garner support for universal women’s suffrage. In 1913-14, International Women’s Day was a tactic to protest World War I as a part of the peace movement. The UN adopted 8 March as the official date in 1975 during the International Year of Women. Gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls is Sustainable Development Goal #5 in 2015.

Celebrating some game-changers and activists

The list below is not extensive. Its purpose is to assist you in your search to discover and know what women are doing and have done around the world.

Kiara Nirghin: Won Google Science Fair for creating an orange and avocado peel mixture to fight against drought conditions around the world. She will join Secretary-General António Guterres.

Elizabeth Hausler: Founder of BuildChange.org, an organization that trains builders, homeowners, and governments to build disaster-resistant homes in nations often affected by earthquakes and typhoons.

Jaha Dujureh: Founder of SafeHandsforGirls.org, an organization fighting to end child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).

BlackGirlsCode.com: A San Francisco based organization seeking to increase the number of girls from marginalized communities in STEM fields by 2040.

Shakhodat Teshebayeva: When the water crisis threatened her livelihood, she organized and mobilized a women’s group to advocate for a place for women at the discussion table regarding equal access to water.

Mila Rodriguez: Cultivates safe spaces for young people to use music to promote peace in Colombia.

Wangari Maathai: late Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Kenya who initiated the GreenBeltMovement.org by planting trees for the cultivation of sustainable development and peace.

Next Einstein Forum: Continental STEM forum in Africa

Una Mulale: the only pediatric critical care doctor in Botswana who works to combine medicine and art to bring healing to the body and the soul.

The Ladypad Project

This coming week, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter and Dr. Stacy Moak will take 12 UAB students to the Maasai Mara in Kenya. The team, in collaboration with the I See Maasai Development Initiative, will fund education on women’s health rights and provide 1500 girls with materials, including underwear and reusable pads, for menstrual hygiene management. The project was awarded a grant through Birmingham’s Independent Presbyterian Church Foundation.

Continuing the Fight

International Women’s Day is not only about celebrating the accomplishments of women and girls, but it is also about shining a light on the continuing injustices faced by more than half of the world’s population. From femicide and early marriage to FGM and sexual violence and exclusion from peace talks, gender inequity discounts the contribution of women and girls to the overall value of humanity. Kofi Annan, the late UN Secretary-General, posited that the empowerment of women proves more effective than any other tool for development. Noeleen Heyzer concludes that although there are women’s issues and rights still to be raised and respected, including those outlined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, there are many that we must continue to protect. March is Women’s History Month and our contributors will write about issues that continue to impact the lives of women and girls around the world.

 

The History of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UN Flag
Flag of the United Nations, paixland, Creative Commons

The conception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) gave birth to human rights as they are known today. Adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the UDHR was a response to the atrocities that took place during World War II. As half the globe laid in ruin and millions of lives were taken, a dormant side of humanity seemed to reawaken within the world powers, and an international prioritization of human rights emerged. The UDHR, comprised of 30 Articles defining human rights, was an expression of humanity’s resurgence, as well as an international commitment to never allow such monstrous acts to take place again.

Those tasked with composing the UDHR were members of the Commission on Human Rights, chaired by the dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. Roosevelt transformed the role of the First Lady by using her position as a platform for social activism in women’s rights, African-American rights, and Depression-era workers’ rights. After her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died in 1945, she was appointed to be the US Delegate to the UN and served in this role for 7 years. It was her experience and passion for social activism that prepared the widow Roosevelt to Chair the commission responsible for creating the UDHR. Roosevelt asserted the Declaration would reflect more than Western ideas; to accomplish this, the Human Rights Commission was made up of members from various cultural and legal backgrounds from all around the world, showing respect for differing cultures and their customs while also ensuring each region had a hand in creating the document. Under Roosevelt’s leadership, the diverse commission was able to craft the UDHR in a unique and culturally-competent way.

Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt, Kevin Borland, Creative Commons

The UDHR was the first document in history to explicitly define what individual rights are and how they must be protected. The Preamble of the document outlines the rights of all human beings:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

Thus, for the first time in history, human rights were assembled and codified into a single document. The Member States, or sovereign states that are members of the United Nations, came together in agreement to protect and promote these rights. As consequence, the rights have shaped constitutional laws and democratic norms around the world, such as the Human Rights Act of 1998 in Britain and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States.

Silhouette of a dove holding an olive branch
Dove Silhouette, Creative Commons

The Commission on Human Rights defined human rights with the conception of the UDHR. By fusing dignity, fairness, equality, respect, and independence, the UN defines human rights as:

rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

Human rights are the cross-cutting theme within every UN agency. They have inspired the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are goals to “provide peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” These planet-, urbanization-, and group-focused goals substantially contribute to the realization of human rights, as the human rights-based approach to development stipulates development is conducive to the promotion of human rights.  In the ideal sense, human rights are a guiding force toward living in global harmony, and through the promotion of the basic rights bestowed by the UDHR, the world has made strides toward achieving that harmony.