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Womens’ Day

March 5, 2011

In my almost a year in Ukraine, I have found out that Ukrainians celebrate more than Americans do. They also don’t work quite as many hours a week, and when they go on vacation, they actually use the opportunity to relax and recharge. And when they celebrate an event of some sort, or a holiday – well, they really celebrate.

On Tuesday it is International Womens’ Day. Though it has been celebrated for 100 years, it is an unfamiliar holiday to most of the population of the United States. Ironically, it started in the United States, in 1909, as National Womens’ Day. It became an international holiday in 1911, when more than one million women and men attended IWD rallies campaigning for womens’ rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination in Denmark, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

It’s kind of ironic that a movement that started in the United States and grew to be so much larger than us is not something that we recognize. To be sure, there are a few places that recognize it, but it does not to the extent that they do here. We recognize Mothers’ Day, which is nice but Womens’ Day is more inclusive – on this day, men honor their mothers, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, etc with flowers and small gifts. I saw so many people carrying flowers yesterday that it brought a bright spot of hope that Spring is near, even with snow still on the ground (and luckily, it finally seems to be melting).

Womens’ Day is actually on March 8, but because that is a Tuesday, celebrations were generally held at workplaces and schools yesterday, and I was lucky enough to be included in two celebrations (this is one of the good things about working at more than one place). At the library, we had a party that included singing, dancing, games, and champagne (it was potluck, and I brought the champagne for our table).

I had known about that celebration since Thursday – one day notice is actually pretty good here – and yesterday morning I got a call from the university to ask if I could join them for their celebration as well. Well, who am I to turn down another party? The university party was more low-key – tea and cake. This was fine with me, as I had been force-fed far more than I was able to eat at the library, and was wondering how I would be able to consume another meal. However, at the university I was given the same gift as the other women – chocolates, a card, body scrub – and I even got something they did not. The director of the department said that since I was so far away from my home and my family, he got me something special – tulips. They are beautiful, and are currently on display in my room, which certainly brightens it up.

My evening was topped off by a friend coming over for light dinner, wine and a movie. She brought me one of my favorite books of all time – The Little Prince – and even better, it has the Russian and French text next to each other.

But one thing that bothers me about Womens’ Day is that it is a day to honor women, and is an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia, but worldwide, the fundamental violation of women’s rights remains widespread.

Women are still paid less than men are for the same jobs, and women lag far behind men in access to land, credit and decent jobs, even though a growing body of research shows that enhancing women’s economic options boosts national economies. Women, in many countries, are not allowed to go to school. Girls are mutilated when they reach the age of puberty. Women and girls are trafficked into prostitution and other forms of slavery. Women and girls still suffer discrimination globally. Across all areas of life, whether in political bodies or corporate boardrooms, women have a limited say in the decisions that affect them. Womens’ health and reproductive rights are under attack, especially in the United States, which holds itself out as this fine example to be followed. Women make up the majority of the world’s poor.

So I ask – how can we celebrate a day that is devoted to women when the status of women and girls still suffers?

So on Tuesday, if you recognize and celebrate International Womens’ Day, take a few minutes to learn about the progress that still needs to be made, and the work that is being done toward the Millennium Development Goals set out by the countries of the United Nations. Take a few minutes to appreciate the women in your life. Remember that the future is in the hands of those who have the least amount of power and resources, and still manage to raise families, work, and contribute to society.

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