As we celebrate more than 100 years since the inaugural International Women’s Day, we are once again reminded that despite the great strides women and girls from all walks of life have made, endemic challenges -- often mired in cultural, social, and political norms -- still keep half the population worldwide from realizing its full potential. As a result, societies and countries also fail to live up to their own capabilities. Fortunately, a groundswell of support is building to turn the tide. It’s fitting that the theme of International Women’s Day 2017 is #BeBoldforChange. In an ever-growing interconnected world, we all have a responsibility to stand up for gender equality as it will support people everywhere.
It is, however, often easy to be discouraged. As the recent roll out of the annual State Department’s Human Rights Report reveals, no country is immune from gender based violence (GBV), despite strong laws in many countries criminalizing such abuse, including in the United States.
In fact, one out of every three women globally is affected by violence during her lifetime, and the situation is even more dire in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 38 percent of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner. Other studies estimate that more than 200 million girls and women living today have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting. Such harmful practices carried out in the name of tradition, including so-called “honor killings,” have no place in the 21st century. The list goes on. Passing laws is just one step; there is much more that needs to be done to address the problem, including providing services for survivors to recover and to thrive, holding perpetrators to account, and preventing such violence from happening in the first place through education and raising awareness.
“Being Bold for Change” calls upon us to take action to address the persistent gender inequalities around the globe. When women and girls are free to participate in the political, economic, cultural, and social lives of their countries, all members of society will be better off.
Being bold for change can run the gamut from girls overcoming gender stereotypes to exploring career opportunities in the STEM fields, to women entrepreneurs mentoring other women trying to start or expand their own businesses.
The Department of State supports the empowerment of women with the tools, knowledge, and access to be that change. For example, through the Women Entrepreneurs of the Americas (WEAmericas) program, entrepreneur and CEO of Afro-Colombiana de Belleza, Maribel Angulo of Cali, Colombia, participated in a WEAmericas TechCamp. When she became housebound due to injuries, she was able to apply the skills she learned in the TechCamp to shift her sales toward ecommerce. As a result, now 80 percent of her sales are online and her business is flourishing.
The State Department is also advancing the rights of women and girls through strategically-crafted public diplomacy programs, including female-focused mentorship exchanges in business, technology, and sports. According to studies by the United Nations and others, women’s and girls’ participation in sports is an important tool in advancing their status and building leadership skills—from the field to the classroom to the boardroom. The State Department’s public-private partnership with espnW, the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), supports women like Olga Dolinina of Ukraine in her advocacy of peace through sports. After her experience on the Global Sports Mentoring Program in 2014, Olga has used ice hockey to strengthen the communities most affected by the recent conflict in Ukraine. One of few women employed by the prestigious Donbass Hockey Club in Donestsk, Olga reached 15,000 young people by combining ice hockey and table hockey activities with therapeutic and health sessions that served as follow-on GSMP activities. She continues to work with other Ukrainian women and leaders to overturn stereotypes and raise a unified voice calling for positive change.
This month, the State Department will present its International Women of Courage award to 12 women from around the world who have demonstrated tremendous courage in the face of extreme challenge and hardship. They represent women around the world who are risking their lives to promote social justice and human rights in their countries, like the nearly 100 women worldwide to whom the State Department has presented this award since its inception in 2007. Such women have emerged as leaders who have gone on to inspire others to work for societal change. Women like Tanzanian journalist Vicky Alice Ntetema who went undercover to investigate the persecution of people with albinism and the role of witch doctors in her country, embody what it means to be bold for change. And unnamed others who have received death threats for their work documenting cases of violence against women and other human rights abuses, or for documenting and reporting on violent extremism or corruption that has infected their countries, have stood up, spoken out, and refused to be silenced in the face of injustice.
So as we set aside March 8 as International Women’s Day, we can take heart that women everywhere are overcoming obstacles, proving their resilience, and in the process challenging us all to step up to make a positive difference in our communities, societies, and countries. Ensuring that women and girls enjoy the same rights as men and boys is not just a moral imperative, rather it’s essential to making the world more stable, prosperous, and secure for everyone.
About the Author: Irene Marr serves in the Secretary’s Office for Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.
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