International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated annually throughout the world. The United Nations describes it as “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 their countries and communities”.
The first IWD was held in 1909 in the United States. It was established by The Socialist Party of America who intended it to honour the 1908 garment workers’ Charhenm strike in New York, where women lobbied against unfair working conditions. Since that initial IWD, women across the world have made significant progress.
For example, in 2018 women in Saudi Arabia were given the right to drive; the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, appointed a majority-female cabinet; the US Midterms saw records break as women (particularly women of colour) were voted into the House of Representatives. According to the United Nations, child marriage has dropped significantly and female genital mutilation is on the decline. However, before we start celebrating, having our purple banners and yelling ‘hooray we did it!’ We must take a critical look at the state of gender equality in Australia.
On a day like IWD, which has such an international focus, it’s easy to demonise countries that have lower indicators of gender equality, compare them to Australia’s seemingly progressive approach and think we’ve got it sorted. IWD is not a day to pity women living
in poverty or facing adverse conditions in developing countries. Doing that removes them of their agency and capacity to participate in their own progress. IWD is an opportunity for Australians to look at the state of women’s progress in our own backyard.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission there continues to be a pay gap in Australia with on average women earning 15.3% less than men, despite making up roughly 47% of the workforce; women earn less superannuation than men which leads to
increased risk of poverty in retirement, and women continue to experience sexual harassment. In the political sphere Australia has a rank of 49 out of 149 for political empowerment.
The most alarming fact, however, is that in Australia the most dangerous place for a woman is in her home. Women are more likely to experience serious injury and death at the hands of a former or current partner. In fact, according to Counting Dead Women Australia researchers of online gender equality activist group Destroy the Joint, (at the time of writing) six women have been murdered by men this year—three of them by husbands or boyfriends.
It also essential that we consider the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience disadvantage in Australia. OurWatch reports that, when compared to non-indigenous women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman are 35 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence.
Australia’s theme for IWD is ‘More Powerful Together’. This theme recognises that gender equality cannot be achieved by women alone and calls people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, political and religious representations to walk alongside women. And I believe faith communities have a unique role to play in encouraging and promoting women because we believe that women and men are created equal. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson puts it, “Women are equally created in the image and likeness of God, equally redeemed by Christ, equally sanctified by the Holy Spirit; women are equally involved in the ongoing tragedy of sin and the mystery of grace, equally called to mission in this world, equally destined for life with God in glory”.
The Salvation Army in Australia has clearly stated that wherever there is hardship or injustice, Salvos will live, love and fight alongside others to transform Australia one life at a time, with the love of Jesus. ‘One life at time’ is the woman who experiences exclusion in her workplace, or emotional abuse from her partner, it’s the mother who is trying to find somewhere safe to spend the night with her children, it’s the women who is wondering how she’s going to make ends meet.Women experience injustice in Australia and this is something as a country we should be ashamed of. However, there is hope—we are all invited to participate in seeking justice alongside women. God has a desire for a perfect community; for harmony and balance. Christians believe that we engage with God in bringing about that harmony and balance. This IWD let’s reflect on the ways we can walk alongside and support women, and ask how we can contribute to equality.
Amanda Merrett is a Salvation Army policy and social justice advisor.