International Women\'s Day - A History

Posted on 04 March 2002

International Women's Day

A History

International Women's Day
The Role of the United Nations
International Women's Day in Malaysia

International Women's Day

International Women's Day (8 March) is an occasion marked by women's groups around the world. This date is also commemorated by the United Nations and is designated in many countries as a national holiday. When women on all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by ethic, linguistics, cultural, economic and political differences come together to celebrate their Day, they can look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.

International Women's Day is the history of ordinary women as makers of history. It is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men. In ancient Greece, Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men in order to end war; during the French Revolution, Parisian women calling for "liberty, equality, fraternity" marched on Versailles to demand women's suffrage.

The idea of an International Women's Day first arose at the turn of the century, which in the industrialised world was a period of expansion and turbulence, booming population growth and radical ideologies. Following is a brief chronology of the most important events:

In accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Woman's Day was observed across the United States on 28 February. Women continued to celebrate it on the last Sunday of that month through 1913.

The Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen, established a Women's Day, international in character, to honour the movement from 17 countries, which included the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament. No fixed date was selected for the observance.

As a result of the decision taken at Copenhagen the previous year, International Women's Day was marked for the first time (19 March) in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded the right to work, to vocational training and to an end to discrimination on the job.

Less than a week later, on 25 March, the tragic Triangle Fire in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working girls, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants. This event had a significant impact on labour legislation in the United States, and the working conditions leading up to the disaster were invoked during subsequent observances of International Women's Day.

As part of the peace movement brewing on the eve of World War 1, Russian women observed their first International Women's Day on the last Sunday in February 1913. Elsewhere in Europe, on or around 8 March of the following year, women held rallies either to protest the war or to express solidarity with their sisters.

With 2 million Russian soldiers dead in the war, Russian women again chose the last Sunday in February to strike for "bread and peace". Political leaders opposed the timing of the strike, but the women went on anyway. The rest is history: Four days later the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. That historic Sunday fell on 23 February on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia, but on 8 March on the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere.

Since those early years, International Women's Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike. The growing international women's movement, which has been strengthened by four global United Nations women's conferences, has helped make the commemoration a rallying point for coordinated efforts to demand women's rights and participation in the political and economic process. Increasingly, International VVomen's Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of women's rights.

The Role of the United Nations

Few causes promoted by the United Nations have generated more intense and widespread support than the campaign to promote and protect the equal rights of women. The Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco in 1945, was the first international agreement to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right. Since then, the Organization has helped create a historic legacy of internationally agreed strategies, standards, programmes and goals to advance the status of women worldwide.

Over the years, United Nations action for the advancement of women has taken four clear directions: promotion of legal measures; mobilization of public opinion and international action- training and research, including the compilation of gender desegregated statistics; and direct assistance to disadvantaged groups. Today a central organizing principle of the work of the United Nations is that no enduring solution to society's most threatening social, economic and political problems can be found without the full participation, and the full empowerment, of the world's women.

International Women's Day in Malaysia

In Malaysia, International Women's Day has been celebrated with a thrust on violence against women since 1985. At that time, violence against women was hardly considered as an issue. Domestic violence was largely perceived to be a private 'family matter', rape was blamed upon the victim, and sexual harassment was not seen as a problem with serious consequences. In March 1985, a Joint Action Group (popularly known as JAG) was formed, comprising of individual women and five organisations - Women's Aid Organisation, Association of Women Lawyers, Malaysian Trade Unions Congress Women's Section, University Women's Association (University Malaya) and the Selangor and Federal Territory Consumer's Association - to forge a force against violence against women.

Since then, seminars, conferences, exhibitions, events, public education campaigns and carnivals have been held to raise the voices of women strongly against gender violence. There has been two significant legal achievements: one, the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act in 1996 - Malaysia being the first country in South East Asia to legally recognise domestic violence as a crime; and two, the reforming of laws regarding to rape.

International Women's Day in Malaysia has therefore become a day of recognition of women's struggles, a celebration of women's successes, and a statement of a definitive stance against violence against women.

This year carries on the tradition. Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) and All Women's Action Society (AWAM) have come together with 3R, a feminist TV programme for young women, to celebrate International Women's Day with an all day outdoor event in KLCC. The theme for the event is STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, with a focus on domestic violence, rape and foreign domestic worker abuse. There will be a Stop Rape signature campaign together with an awareness informative panel on domestic violence and foreign domestic worker abuse, enabling the public to take proactive, positive measures in joining the effort to stop violence against women. The event is also aimed at empowering young women and men to know their rights, find their voice and make a stand against gender violence.

International Women's Day is a day of celebration for women everywhere - in recognition of their struggles, their victories and their future.
Join us in this event, and do your bit for the empowerment of women!

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