International Women’s Day Spotlights Gains around the World

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog

Today, as on March 8 every year since 1911, men and women around the globe celebrate the contributions women make to humankind. Although both egregious abuses and subtle discrimination persist worldwide, real progress toward gender equality, which means progress for humanity as a whole, appears to be gaining momentum. Attempts to deny women their basic human rights are being resisted by growing numbers of activists and concerned citizens—women and men who now demand that states, religious institutions, family units, medical practitioners, educators, industries, and legal institutions move beyond traditions of exploitation, inequality, and prejudice. Many governments are also making serious efforts—in their own countries, within their regions, and at the United Nations—to elevate the status of women in all spheres of society, including those historically closed to women or where traditional female contributions have long been undervalued.

A number of developments over the past year have signaled women’s growing presence at the highest echelons of political and economic power:

1. Breakthroughs for female political leaders


Malawi's president Joyce Banda
Photo Credit | Lindsay Mgbor - Department for International Development


The rise of female political leadership in countries including Malawi, South Korea, and Burma could help propel broader social change. In South Korea and Malawi, Park Geun-hye and Joyce Banda became the first female presidents in their countries’ history, and in Burma, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in the parliament and has carved out a prominent place for herself in the political landscape.
 

2. Unprecedented female representation in U.S. Congress

Also on the political front, 2012 was a record-setting year for women in the United States,  with 18 women running in the general election for Senate seats and 166 vying for seats in the House. The resulting 113th Congress included 78 women in the House and 20 female senators, marking new highs for both chambers. States such as Massachusetts, North Dakota, Hawaii, and Wisconsin elected their first female senators.
 

3. Women guiding major economies


German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum

During a difficult economic recovery, several key women are at the helms of some of the largest economies in the world. German chancellor Angela Merkel has helped the European Union navigate a crippling debt crisis. President Dilma Rousseff is attempting to ensure that Brazil—with the world’s sixth-largest economy—continues to grow at a healthy pace. Meanwhile, Christine Lagarde, the first female chief of the International Monetary Fund, is leading the organization in a challenging political and economic climate.



Although the attainment of high office is an important sign of progress, change on the ground is often driven by women working in relative obscurity or at great personal risk. The following are but three examples of the critical contributions being made by such women. Their stories illustrate what society is sacrificing when it leaves women out of the peace-building, decision-making, and power-sharing arenas, or denies their equal dignity and worth.

Malala Yousafzai


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English Screengrab

Malala Yousafzai was 11 years old when she began blogging anonymously about life under Taliban rule in northwestern Pakistan. Her courage in taking on a more public role to advocate education for girls earned her the Pakistani government’s National Youth Peace Award in 2012. Later that year, Malala was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen who stormed her school bus in an attempt to silence her. She was 15.

Malala is recovering in Britain after multiple surgeries. She has been nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, making her the youngest person to garner this distinction to date. Inspired by her fearlessness, Pakistanis across religious and political lines have joined the international community to vocally support Malala’s goal of eradicating education inequalities in Pakistan. Her bravery and leadership is credited by a generation of girls in at-risk regions for their determination to pursue their right to education. Malala’s story represents both the unprecedented achievements that are within reach for women and girls of her generation, as well as the horrifying resistance they continue to face.

Beyonce Amooti


Photo Credit: Facebook Page

Beyonce Amooti is a Ugandan activist of remarkable determination and resilience. Being a transgender woman in Uganda means every day is a challenge, especially for someone who lost her mother when she was young. As she gradually and courageously claimed her identity as the woman she knew herself to be, she was left to deal with extreme poverty and a father who initially rejected her. With little formal education, and due to her nonconforming gender identity, she found herself unemployable except in the sex trade on the rough streets of Kampala. Violence and harassment, including by the police, have been part of her daily reality, but Beyonce is never without a broad smile and an authentic if hard-won femininity. A natural leader, she has gone on to organize her transgender sisters into a group called Transgender Equality Uganda, helping them to survive with their dignity and health intact, and standing tall for perhaps the most basic and fundamental human right of all—the right to be yourself.

Carla Koppell


Photo Credit: U.S. Naval War College

For many years, addressing “women in development” at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) involved a few model projects, some boxes to check off on forms, and little else. Carla Koppell was instrumental in changing that. When she agreed to join USAID as senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment, she brought a transformative influence that has helped propel the agency beyond the old rhetoric and into meaningful action. Through the force of her personality and her ability to mobilize like-minded colleagues, measurable progress toward gender equality has been achieved across USAID’s many fields of activity. Perhaps her single most important contribution has been the leadership she provided to more than 150 USAID officers around the world who collaborated on the National Action Plan for Women, Peace, and Security, which is designed to strengthen the role of women in all aspects of conflict resolution and peace building.


Gender inequity is essentially an imbalance in economic, cultural, and political power. It is corrected through healthy and mutually respectful relationships between men and women: Are women joining men as equals in decision-making positions? Are the varied roles of women in society accounted for and valued? Do all people exercise similar rights and agency over their health, land and family assets, belief, identity, and expression? The more these questions are answered in the affirmative, the more democratic societies flourish.