On 8 March every year, women across the globe mark International Women’s Day (IWD), a day of celebration and aspiration.
But did you know that IWD was originally called “International Working Women’s Day”? Since it was first observed in 1908, IWD has been an important day for organisations like BPW Australia which focus on the rights of women in the world of work (within the broader context of women’s rights in general).
The history of IWD is interesting also because it began as a political event in the Socialist states of Eastern Europe, Russia and the former Soviet bloc. It was only when the day was added to the UN calendar that IWD became the human rights day that we know today.
Since it began, IWD has celebrated women’s achievements but also allowed women to pause and think about what still remains to be achieved.
In Australia, the focus is primarily on celebration: this year we hail the achievements of our first female Governor-General, the Hon Quentin Bryce AC CVO, BPW Australia’s patron, whose term ends on 28 March. Quentin Bryce is a role model for all women in Australia, young and old. She has served our nation with dignity, compassion and commitment, and has shown courage in speaking out for gay marriage and an Australian republic when she could so easily have hidden behind the traditions of her office. Her hopes that Australia might become a nation where “people are free to love and marry whom they choose… and where perhaps…one day, one young girl or boy may even grow up to be our nation’s first head of state” were not a political statement, but an endorsement of the rights of all people.
Australia has now had a female Governor-General and a female Prime Minister, but such achievement has been shown to be fragile. By the end of this month, we shall again live in a country that has a man (a worthy man) in the Governor-General’s role, a man leading our Government and only one woman in the Cabinet. Clearly our work to achieve full equality of opportunity and representation is not over.
It should be of concern to all Australian women that, in the latest Global Gender Gap Report, Australia has slipped 10 places, with women in countries including South Africa, Cuba, Burundi, the Philippines, Latvia and Lesotho all enjoying greater equality with men than we do in relation to key indicators of equality: health, education, economics and politics. While Australia rates in equal first place in education, it comes in at 69th for health and survival and only 43rd for political empowerment.
Australian women still experience underlying forms of discrimination in the workplace and subtle, unconscious bias. The challenge for our society today is to continue to break down these barriers to change. The National President of Business and Professional Women (BPW) Australia, Dr June Kane AM, says “These are testing times for all of us who care about women’s status and rights both at work and in the community. Despite so many years of work, often robust legislation and the continuing determination and commitment of women across Australia, working women still do not receive the same pay as men for equivalent work; women retire with less superannuation; and we are under-represented not only on boards but on decision-making bodies at all levels. ”
This is why IWD is also a day of aspiration – a day when we recommit to our aspirations to achieve a world where all women enjoy all of their rights.
We do this at home through advocacy and lobbying, national campaigns, community projects and by enhancing our own personal and professional capacities for the benefit of our families, communities and nation. And we do it on an international level through our affiliation with BPW International, a global network of women whose aspirations match our own.
As IWD is marked this year, BPW International delegates – including BPW Australia members – will be preparing for the 58th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the UN in New York. There, major themes are discussed each year, to ensure that international commitments made at conferences like the Beijing Conference on Women are followed through, and that governments are fulfilling their promises made in ratifying instruments such as the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
BPW International delegations and our permanent representatives to the UN in New York, Geneva and Vienna work tirelessly on these issues, ensuring that BPW’s voice is heard and that we are able to influence international agendas and actions for the benefit of women worldwide.
BPW Australia’s affiliation to BPW International also means that we can influence the international women’s agenda through such processes as the BPW International Congress, which in May this year will be held in Jeju, South Korea. Resolutions that we have put forward will be voted on by BPW members from across the globe, as we vote on their resolutions, and together we shall set the agenda for our international work for the next three years.
These international processes are directly linked to the collegiate meetings BPW Clubs hold every month across Australia. Our Clubs are the heart of our organisation and members generate the energy that keeps us alive and able to do the work we do – at local, national and international levels.
As International Women’s Day comes around again this year, every member of BPW Australia should be proud of our achievements on behalf of women here and overseas, and recommit to our aspiration that true equality and enjoyment of rights become a reality for all women.