From Celebration to Action: International Women’s Day Must Move Beyond Tokenism

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global event that has been celebrated for over a century, serving as a reminder of the achievements of women and the ongoing struggle for gender equality. However, in recent years, there has been growing concern about the commercialization and tokenism that have come to define the event. 

While Women’s Day may offer an opportunity to raise awareness about women’s rights, it is no longer enough to simply celebrate women’s achievements and call for gender equality. In order for Women’s Day to truly make a difference, it must move beyond tokenism and become a catalyst for action that addresses the structural inequalities that perpetuate gender-based discrimination and violence.

The first Women’s Day was observed on February 28, 1909, in New York City, organized by the Socialist Party of America to honor the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against their working conditions. The event inspired the creation of International Women’s Day in 1910, which was proposed by Clara Zetkin, a German socialist, during the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen.

The primary purpose of IWD is to raise awareness about gender equality and advocate for women’s rights. It is a day to celebrate the progress made toward gender equality while recognizing the work that still needs to be done. Women’s Day is now celebrated worldwide, and each year has a different theme that highlights a specific issue impacting women globally.

This year’s theme, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality,” highlights the role of innovative technology in promoting gender equality and meeting the health and developmental needs of women and girls

What follows is a list of the themes for International Women’s Day starting from 1975 to 2019. I couldn’t help but notice the recurring theme of violence against women, over the decades.

  1. 1975: “International Women’s Year”
  2. 1976: “To Honour Women on International Women’s Day”
  3. 1977: “International Women’s Year”
  4. 1978: “Education and Training of Women”
  5. 1979: “United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace”
  6. 1980: “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All Women”
  7. 1981: “International Year of Disabled Persons”
  8. 1982: “Equal Access to Education, Training, and Science and Technology: Pathway to Decent Work for Women”
  9. 1983: “Health is a Women’s Issue”
  10. 1984: “Women and Science”
  11. 1985: “Women and Survival in the Cities”
  12. 1986: “Women and the Family”
  13. 1987: “Women and Peace”
  14. 1988: “Women and the Environment”
  15. 1989: “Towards a Just and Sustainable Development”
  16. 1990: “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All”
  17. 1991: “Women and Education”
  18. 1992: “Women and Environment”
  19. 1993: “Violence Against Women: The Hidden Health Burden”
  20. 1994: “Women and the Peace Process”
  21. 1995: “Women Paving the Way to the 21st Century”
  22. 1996: “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future”
  23. 1997: “Women at the Peace Table”
  24. 1998: “Women and Human Rights”
  25. 1999: “World Free of Violence Against Women”
  26. 2000: “Women Uniting for Peace”
  27. 2001: “Women and Peace: Women Managing Conflicts”
  28. 2002: “Afghan Women Today: Realities and Opportunities”
  29. 2003: “Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals”
  30. 2004: “Women and HIV/AIDS”
  31. 2005: “Gender Equality Beyond 2005: Building a More Secure Future”
  32. 2006: “Women in Decision-making”
  33. 2007: “Ending Impunity for Violence Against Women and Girls”
  34. 2008: “Investing in Women and Girls”
  35. 2009: “Women and Men United to End Violence Against Women and Girls”
  36. 2010: “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All”
  37. 2011: “Equal Access to Education, Training, and Science and Technology: Pathway to Decent Work for Women”
  38. 2012: “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty”
  39. 2013: “A Promise is a Promise: Time for Action to End Violence Against Women”
  40. 2014: “Equality for Women is Progress for All”
  41. 2015: “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!”
  42. 2016: “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”
  43. 2017: “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”
  44. 2018: “Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives”
  45. 2019: “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change”

The theme of ending violence against women has been a recurring one for International Women’s Day, not only reflecting the global concern about the widespread issue of violence against women but also as an indication that more needs to be done.

Since the 1990s, the United Nations has recognized violence against women as a human rights issue and a form of discrimination. The 1993 International Women’s Day theme was “Violence Against Women: The Hidden Health Burden,” which aimed to raise awareness about the health consequences of violence against women. The 1999 theme was “World Free of Violence Against Women.” 

In 2003, the theme was “Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals,” which recognized that gender inequality and violence against women are major obstacles to achieving the goals of poverty reduction and sustainable development.

In recent years, the focus on ending violence against women has intensified, with themes such as “A Promise is a Promise: Time for Action to End Violence Against Women” in 2013 and “Women and Men United to End Violence Against Women and Girls” in 2009. These themes aimed to raise awareness about the need for a comprehensive and coordinated response to violence against women and to emphasize the importance of engaging men and boys as allies in ending violence against women.

Over the past 50 years, there have been over 1,500 reforms implemented in countries worldwide aimed at enhancing women’s economic empowerment. Despite this progress, legal gender equality on a global scale has yet to be achieved, highlighting the need for continued efforts to drive reform. To accelerate progress toward this goal, more initiatives in identifying discriminatory laws and regulations that hinder women’s prospects as entrepreneurs and employees must be put into action. More projects aimed to advance women’s economic inclusion and remove barriers to gender equality.

Over the decades, progress has been made in raising awareness about violence against women and improving the legal framework for addressing this issue. Many countries have enacted laws and policies to prevent and respond to violence against women, and there has been greater recognition of the need to provide support services to survivors of violence. Additionally, international efforts, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, have put a spotlight on the issue of violence against women as a barrier to achieving gender equality and sustainable development.

However, despite these efforts, violence against women remains a pervasive and persistent problem around the world. According to the World Health Organization, one in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to address violence against women, as lockdowns and other measures have led to a surge in domestic violence cases.

We’ve seen progress in raising awareness and improving the legal and policy framework for addressing violence against women, but more needs to be done to prevent and respond to this issue. Ending violence against women requires a sustained effort that involves multiple stakeholders, including governments, civil society, the private sector, and individuals at all levels of society.

Moreover, the commercialization of Women’s Day has diluted its significance for many people, turning it into another occasion for consumerism and materialism.

While many companies genuinely support women’s rights and use International Women’s Day (IWD) as an opportunity to promote gender equality, some have been accused of using the occasion to advance their own agenda without any real benefits for women, and in some cases it backfired.

  1. The sponsor of the iconic Fearless Girl statue, State Street Bank, faced criticism against the backdrop of a $5 million discrimination settlement for female and black employees. 
  2. The International Women’s Day Picasso exhibit at Tate Modern in 2018 generated significant controversy and criticism due to the artist’s well-documented fixation with one-dimensional female stereotypes and his treatment of women.
  3. NBCUniversal’s decision to rebrand the station ‘E!’ to ‘She!’ and feature a week of female-focused content was met with skepticism, given the company’s history of sexual harassment accusations and enforcement of silencing NDAs. 
  4. KPMG’s release of a video celebrating female leadership was called into question, as the company was, at the time, facing a class action lawsuit for denying promotions to women and penalizing them for taking maternity leave. 
  5. Bic South Africa’s assertion that women should ‘look like a girl… think like a man’ has been widely condemned as sexist and offensive.
  6. Nobel Peace Prize’s attempt to honor IWD in 2017 by highlighting the fact that women represented only 6% of total winners in the prize’s history has underscored the ongoing need for greater recognition of women’s achievements and contributions.
  7. McDonald’s: In 2018, McDonald’s flipped its golden arches upside down in honor of IWD, creating a “W” to stand for “women.” However, the move was widely criticized as a hollow gesture, given the company’s track record of paying its female workers less than their male counterparts and failing to address harassment and discrimination in its workplace.
  8. Hooters: The restaurant chain known for its scantily clad waitresses once ran an IWD promotion offering free wings to women who shred a photo of their ex-partner. The promotion was widely criticized for being misogynistic and insensitive to survivors of domestic violence.
  9. Spirit Airlines: In 2019, Spirit Airlines released an IWD ad featuring a woman in a tight-fitting flight attendant uniform with the tagline “Get home early to celebrate.” The ad was widely criticized as sexist and perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes.
  10. Pornhub: In 2020, the adult website released a series of IWD-themed videos and graphics featuring sexualized images of women. The move was widely condemned as exploitative and demeaning to women, with critics arguing that it undermined the very message of IWD.

These are but a few examples of companies that have been accused of using IWD for their own purposes without genuinely supporting women’s rights and gender equality. These examples clearly point to the need for a more transformative approach to Women’s Day that goes beyond the surface-level celebrations and engages in meaningful action toward gender equality. It is important we maintain the focus on the original purpose of Women’s Day, which is to celebrate the achievements of women, raise awareness about their struggles, and renew our commitment to creating a world where women can live free from discrimination, violence, and oppression.

Published by Maddalena Di Gregorio

“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in” Robert L. Stevenson

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