International Women's Day: Why, How, and Now in Achieving Women's Rights – Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, JD

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

Women make up about half of the world’s population. Women provide the majority of resources, support, and services to men, other women, children, elderly, disabled, and others in their care. Women serve countless hours in the home and in the marketplace. And there is no man, woman, or child in this world that did not start their life through a woman who conceived, carried, and delivered that person into the world. So why is it that women are still facing disparity, discrimination, and abuse in political, social, and economic terms? On this International Women’s Day, let us take a closer look at the questions of “why?” but also the question of “how?” women can achieve human rights worldwide.

The most significant “why?” for the challenges that women face worldwide is that a marked gender gap exists between men and women on many fronts. That gap is rooted in several political, economic, and social disadvantages that place women in contexts of disparity, discrimination and abuse. These contexts then rob women of significant rights for a higher standing and equal status in society, thus making them vulnerable to a host of struggles.

Politically, fewer women than men around the globe have political rights and thus access to political participation opportunities including voting, representation, and public office. With women not as well represented in these areas, they have less of a voice and a say in not only policies in general but specific policies that directly impact them. This disenfranchisement from the political process structurally situates women in a lesser context in political society.

Economically, women worldwide have fewer economic opportunities and limited access to wealth and property than men. Many women are not permitted to acquire or own property, many can not work, and many who do work do so for more hours, less pay and fewer options for advancement. As a result, globally women struggle economically and thus are more dependent on men, government, and others for support. This is exacerbated by the disproportionately higher number of women who need to support children, elderly and others in their care. Such economic status significantly disadvantages women in society since their overall status and means are usually connected to economic status.

Socially, women are more prone to discrimination and abuse not only in the home but outside the home. Because many women are physically smaller than men, they are more likely to face physical harm. Mere size can position women precariously in families where there is spousal abuse, or in external exploitation such as human trafficking. Beyond physical size, the economic status of women also make them vulnerable socially since they do not have the financial means or power to prevent certain abuses, especially those that take advantage of those in poverty and vulnerability. And political, religious, and social perspectives on women position them in further vulnerability because of limited access, opportunities, or value.

Based on these gaps, another “why?” is that women have had less opportunity and engagement in organizing themselves and accessing resources to address the political, economic, and social gaps they face. Without the means and the network, women are not able as a whole to rise beyond their current circumstances. Women in developing countries may be able to create limited networks with other women, but their economic or political status makes that more difficult. And women in developed countries may or may not engage in those networks and/or in the opportunities to assist women in developing regions for a range of reasons. Whatever the reasons, women doing more to connect and support one another directly and indirectly in their communities or across the globe can significantly raise the status of women worldwide.

Another critical “why?” is that not enough men are supporting women to access resources and opportunities, to raise awareness, and to change perspectives among men and society in support of women. Unless and until men have a significant shift in their mentality and approach to women, women worldwide will have less success in moving their progress and opportunities forward.

These are just come of the “why’s” that are at the heart of the status of women today, but there are also a number of a “how’s” to overcome these concerns and pursue human rights for women:

How can we change the status of women? We can start by engaging the world’s women and girls in ways that allow them to be supported and encouraged by other women and girls politically, economically, and socially. Those efforts can include providing resources, educating, equipping, mentoring, and networking to advocate for them and address the disparities, discrimination, and abuse they face.

How can we ensure that women are valued in society? We can engage men and boys to recognize and honor the inherent value of women in their lives and around the world. While women and girls can organize to address their concerns, this work needs to be done cooperatively with men as they represent the other half of the population and the majority of the power centers in politics, economics, and society. Women need men just as much as men need women, but especially so in equally valuing the status and contributions of women and accessing opportunities. When women thrive, men and boys (as well as women and girls) thrive. Subjugating women in turn subjugates the others. Fathers can pass on this message of value to their sons and daughters. Leaders within church, business, government, and other sectors of society, can also support that message and provide equal opportunities and access to women to demonstrate that commitment.

How can we prevent discrimination and disparity? We can pursue policy changes across the spectrum of international, federal, state, and local systems to ensure that women are treated fairly and equitably in all contexts. While equal rights do not mean equal results in all circumstances, they do mean equal access and opportunities and equal evaluation and valuation on the merits and achievements of women. Whether in political, economic, or social circles, intentional and concerted efforts to remove impediments to such access are essential.

How can we change perspectives about women? We can begin by changing the depictions and representations of women in media and entertainment. No matter how many women and men advocates are out there supporting the value and dignity of women, there are media and entertainment outlets depicting the over-sexualization and commodification of women in advertising, television, film, and the internet. These depictions send a mixed message to our youth and to adults about not only women but about people and their worth. Unless society pushes back on this tide of commercialization of people, women will continue to be objectified no matter what laws and supports are available.

While these why’s and how’s are just a start to understanding the circumstances and potentials for women, and while changing millenniums of challenges for women will not happen quickly or easily, women are uniquely positioned in 2018 to move the agenda further. Whether through social media or the internet more broadly, whether through microfinancing and collaborative projects, whether through empowerment campaigns and organizations, whether through education and discourse, women have more resources and opportunities than ever before and need to pursue them now. The harsh realities of our current society should not outweigh the notable potentials that also exist for women’s human rights.

So on this International Women’s Day, I honor and recognize the value of the 3.5 billion+ women in this world. I especially appreciate the women in my family, in my friendships, in my professional circles, and in my broader network that not only give me inspiration and motivation to pursue justice for women as a woman, but also to the men in those contexts who also have provided support for me to do so. The pursuit of women’s rights is not just a women’s agenda – it is a human priority that is fundamentally a cooperative endeavor, signified by International Women’s Day but continuing each and every day.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.