International Women’s Day, marked on 8 March, is more than a celebration, It’s a reminder there’s work to be done, writes Faye Michelson.
From high-profile speakers at forums and dinners, to community leaders at breakfasts and lunches, a huge range of events will be held around Australia—and the world—this month to mark International Women’s Day (IWD).
It’s an opportunity to acknowledge women’s achievements in all areas of society, but alongside the celebrations there is a dark history to remember and a sobering present to confront.
IWD was born out of activism. The first was held 107 years ago on 19 March 1911 when more than a million women and men attended rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland to demand women’s rights to vote, hold public office, work and have vocational training.
In 1975, the United Nations officially declared 8 March as IWD during International Women’s Year. That date has been a springboard for resolutions for women’s rights, such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995, signed by 189 governments. It focused on critical areas of concern to envision “a world where each woman and girl can exercise her choices, such as participating in politics, getting an education, having an income, and living in societies free from violence and discrimination”.
IWD has always been more than a day to celebrate women’s successes; it’s a rallying point to advocate for women.
This year, themes including #PressforProgress, #BeBoldForChange and the UN’s ‘Leave no woman behind’, are compelling reminders that for millions of women around the world—including Australia—life is about survival.
The statistics are sobering. Here’s a snapshot: women and girls together account for 71% of human trafficking victims, with girls making up almost three out of every four child trafficking victims.
At least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone genital mutilation—mostly before they turned five years old—in the 30 countries with representative data (UNICEF).
The World Health Organisation’s most recent data shows that, every day, an average of 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, with 99% of all maternal deaths occurring in developing countries.
More than 60 million girls around the world are denied an education, less than 20% of landholders worldwide are women, and while the global pay gap between men and women averages at 23%, it can be as high as 40% in rural areas. In Australia, women are paid 17.3% less than their male counterparts.
Every week in Australia, a woman dies at the hands of a current or former partner. One in three Australian women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15 and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience violence at higher rates than non-Indigenous women.
How do we press for progress, be bold for change and leave no woman behind?
It requires many levels of action, from changing policies and passing legislation at international and government levels down to the narrowest of focuses—supporting one woman at a time, as The Salvation Army does through so much of its work.
Some were without hope when I first met them, but as I’ve walked alongside them, offered to pray with them and listened to them, I’ve seen them becoming ready to start life again.
~LAUREL CUMMINS, SALVO CHAPLAIN
The belief that every woman is valuable underpins Laurel Cummins’ work in Adelaide’s correctional facilities. The Salvo chaplain knows many of the women she visits are on the brink of being lost to society, even after serving their sentences, unless they receive support.
“They have lost their liberty, family, children, self-esteem, hope—they’ve lost everything,” Laurel says.
“Some who have long sentences never have a visitor. To have someone like me to talk to, someone who won’t judge them, who is an ordinary, supportive voice giving them hope of a life beyond prison, is very important. I believe every person can experience the grace of God. It’s not up to me to judge; I don’t even need to know any of their history. I am just here for them in the present.”
As well as being a calm, compassionate sounding board, Salvo chaplains offer inmates the Positive Lifestyle Program, designed to teach life skills to ease their transition back into the community. In the two years she has been a chaplain, Laurel has seen women move from despair to tentative optimism about their future.
“Some were without hope when I first met them, but as I’ve walked alongside them, offered to pray with them and listened to them, I’ve seen them becoming ready to start life again.”
The idea of starting life again can seem overwhelming, if not almost impossible, for women and children escaping family violence. It’s not unusual for Salvo officer Naava Brooks and her dedicated team at one of The Salvation Army’s women’s refuges in Perth to be told, “If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead.”
The refuge provides crisis and medium-term accommodation, around-the-clock staff and case management to support women and their children as they rebuild their lives.
“We help them to take care of immediate needs—medical and legal assistance, counselling and immigration support are the big ones—and work with them on achieving medium- to long-term goals such as accommodation and developing skills so they can be independent,” Naava says.
“We nurture and encourage, enabling the women but not rescuing them. We’re about helping them regain power and control over their lives because their self-confidence and self-esteem has been so shredded. We encourage them to understand that family violence is a human rights issue and they and their children have rights.”
In the past six months, 117 people—55 women and 62 children—have gone to the refuge. Naava says most have been subjected to family violence—from very young mothers to older women suffering elder abuse. They come from a range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds; some have been in abusive relationships for many years, some are mail order brides, some are victims of human trafficking.
“Family violence is a hidden crime and seems to be escalating,” she says. “Families fracture under destructive influences like drugs and alcohol or through financial or cultural pressures. Statistically a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before making a decision to go for good. Some women who come to us go back, so we continue to support them as much as we can with counselling and safety planning.”
Supporting women through trauma, guiding them through legal processes, building their confidence and skills through courses, and seeing them and their children develop strong bonds and taking charge of their lives again is a privilege, Naava says.
“People will say, ‘You’ve changed my life’, but we’re quick to tell them they changed their own lives.
‘It’s a privilege to work with people who let us into their lives, who trust us to support them and share their journey with them. To see women change and take hold of their lives is a beautiful thing.”