Can we afford to celebrate International Women’s Day? | Sunday Observer

Can we afford to celebrate International Women’s Day?

7 March, 2021

“Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.” - Ruth Bader Ginsburg

March 8 has been designated International Women’s Day (IWD) since the year 1914. The tradition of observing a women’s day was introduced in the early 1900s by the Socialist Party of America with the recognition of one day as the National Women’s Day.

These were the times when the world population was growing fast experiencing the turbulence of industrialisation. Women around the world, especially, in the United States, were beginning to see the types of unequal treatments and the oppression they were forced to undergo by the male dominated governing bodies of the industry as well as of the country. Thousands of women marched through New York City in 1908, demanding shorter working hours, better pay and voting rights at local and national elections.

Women in other countries were also facing similar conditions and therefore, the idea of recognising one day of the year as Women’s Day was agreed upon in the year 1910 at the International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen. Women all over the world have been using the attention they were getting, especially on this particular day, to express their grievances and fight for their rights to vote, equal pay and working hours as compared to their male counterparts. They have organised activities under different themes such as ‘Women at the peace table’, ‘A world free of violence against women’, ‘Celebrating the past, planning for the future’, ‘Stop the war’ and ‘Women and human rights’ over the years. This year the world will celebrate IWD under the theme ‘Choose to Challenge’ with the expectation of propagating the message ‘a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change’.

Women were denied the right to own property, to study or to participate in public life until the 16th century. In France women were compelled to cover their heads in public and in some parts of Germany the husband had the right to sell the wife until the beginning of the 20th century.

Feminist movements

Even as late as early 20th century, there were countries where women were prevented from conducting business without a male representative, be it father, brother, husband, legal agent, or even son. Married women could not exercise control over their own children without the permission of their husbands. Moreover, women had little or no access to education and were barred from most professions. Sri Lankans can easily attest to the fact that such restrictions on women continue even today just by citing the recent case of the female Police officer’s promotion to the rank of a DIG. Even though came into being in mid to late 1800s and won so many rights (which they didn’t have to fight for in a just society), including the right to vote and to conduct business on their own, we still have not been able to remove the glass ceiling in the professional world. Sri Lanka, perhaps, is seen as even more progressive than the US and most of the European countries since we are fortunate to have the opportunity to boast about producing the first female Prime Minister in the world.

But, one may wonder how progressive we would have been if not for the unfortunate incident of her husband’s assassination. Similarly, one can portray Sri Lanka as a country where women have equal rights as men, by highlighting the fact that the country, at one time elected a female as the President.. Then again one may wonder whether that would have been possible if that female was not the daughter of two former Prime Ministers.


Sri Lanka doesn’t seem to have made any significant progress in reducing oppression and crime against women either. Recent incidents such as gruesome murders of an 18 year old schoolgirl in Jaffna and a 30 year old woman from Kuruwita, whose headless body was found in a travelling bag, clearly indicate that there is no improvement in the area of violence against women in Sri Lanka. No female, irrespective of age, will be able to walk by herself on the streets of Sri Lanka without getting harassed by men. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Sri Lanka. One may find similar situations in other countries too. According to the WHO and UN reports about 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. About 38 percent of murders of women globally are committed by male intimate partners. Globally, it is estimated that of the 87,000 women who were intentionally killed in 2017, around 50,000 were by intimate partners or family members. Also, about 140 women are killed by a member of their own family every day.

These numbers may even be higher now since the restricted movement and social isolation during the pandemic have increased women’s vulnerability to violence in their own homes. About 72 percent of the victims of human trafficking are females. Even though the global rate of child marriages have declined during the last decade it still fluctuates between 18 and 20 percent.


Child marriages often result in early pregnancy, social isolation, interruption of education and domestic violence. School related gender based violence is a major obstacle to universal schooling and the right to education for girls. One in ten women have experienced cyber-harassment since the age of 15.

Globally, 82 percent of women parliamentarians reported having experienced some form of harassment primarily by their male colleagues. Nearly half of them reported receiving death, rape, assault or abduction threats to them or their families.

May be we should carefully think about these numbers and try to understand the purpose of having an International Women’s Day. Is it just to pacify the victims, survivors and their loved ones at least once a year so that the male dominated world can continue business as usual?

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]