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100 Years of International Women's Day


Today marks the centenary of International Women's Day. Originating from labor movements in North America and across Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, International Women's Day is now a global celebration. As the UN says, it is an occasion “for looking back on past struggles and accomplishments, and more importantly, for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women.”

With the official launch of UN Women (the new United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) last month, there is much to celebrate this International Women’s Day. Its establishment has the potential to accelerate progress over the next century on achieving gender equality; a goal that has been underpinned internationally since it was enshrined in the Preamble of the United Nations Charter more than 65 years ago.

In her International Women’s Day address, Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, outlines the organization’s vision as “a world where women and men have equal opportunities and capacities and where principles of gender equality are embedded in the development, peace and security agendas.” Achieving this, she argues, requires opening up space for women’s political leadership; freeing women from gender-based violence; and convincing key policymakers that where women fully contribute to their economies and societies, everybody gains.

Bachelet is right to point to evidence that when women have access to good education, good jobs, to land and other assets, national growth and stability are enhanced. Such arguments for women’s socioeconomic advancement have great political leverage. But they risk marginalizing key aspects of women’s human rights and creating a fragmented normative approach to gender equality. Women should have access to education, to jobs, to land and to resources, not only because it is good for the economy, but because—like men—they are entitled to these fundamental rights.

Human rights, and in particular the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, are identified as a key focus area for UN Women. The Convention elaborates the norm of non-discrimination by providing that women should be treated the same as men. Non-discrimination is a prerequisite of equality. A more holistic understanding of equality, which aims to respond to the economic, social and cultural dimensions of women’s lives, has been increasingly reflected in international law and global UN policy commitments.

Despite much progress, socioeconomic deprivations continue to be a lived reality for many women around the world. Governments have made less progress on MDG 5: Improving Maternal Health, for example, than on any other millenium development goal.

So today is a timely reminder of the importance of mainstreaming human rights language in the new agency's operational framework as it continues to evolve. And to ensure that the framework includes a strong focus on women’s economic, social and cultural rights as a means to achieving meaningful gender equality. Human rights must be not only at the heart of UN Women’s future programs, policies and planning, but also in its strategic partnerships as well, including involvement from the special procedures and mechanisms, various UN treaty bodies and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. But it must also involve substantive engagement and participation from civil society, grassroots groups, gender experts and human rights practitioners.

In times of economic crisis, it is more important than ever that UN Women address women’s social and economic exclusion and marginalization as the underlying factors that prevent women from accessing jobs, a decent education and a political voice. Rather than merely "treating the symptom without treating the cause," UN Women should incorporate a human rights framework as a means of rendering its work on women’s empowerment more meaningful, accountable and based on principles of equality and non-discrimination. A human-rights-based approach can play a major role in driving the agency’s direction and completing its objectives in a way that marks a new international approach to gender architecture than from what came before.

UN Women produced the following video, The Journey of Women's Rights 1911-2011, to commemorate today's anniversary: