Today, once again the world celebrates International Women's Day (IWD). The IWD was first declared in 1910, with the first IWD event held in 1911. The commemoration this year, under the theme "Equal access to Education, Training and Science and Technology Pathway to Descent Work for Women" signifies 100 years of celebrating this global day for women. Over the years, Women's Day has assumed a new global dimension. Widespread increased activity is anticipated today with thousands of events held.

Observed each year on March 8, IWD is a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women. It is a day to draw attention to the challenges that remain before gender equality is fully realised. It is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change, and to applaud acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in their countries and communities. It is a reminder of how women from around the world share the same complexities of life.

As I reflect on the significance of this day, I allow myself to be in touch with my own experiences as a woman. I am reminded of the numerous duties and the roles I play: a mother of two lovely children, a daughter, sister, aunt, worker and once a wife. As I ponder my experiences, my thoughts take me back to my time growing up as a girl child. I am delighted to have felt valued as a child, respected and happen not to have experienced any discrimination especially with regard to education. I had the same opportunities as my male siblings. I have also spent some time thinking about my life as an adult.

Thoughts of my failed marriage flood my mind. Again I am relieved that I could see my life beyond being married and didn't need to hold on to a marriage for survival even when it was not working. I deeply value marriage and family life but not at the expense of my own human dignity. I have an education and I am able to earn a dignified income and look after myself. With these thoughts, I seem not to have experienced any of the challenges many women, especially the poor and uneducated, face.

IWD is traditionally marked with a message from the Secretary General. In his address this year, the Secretary General asserts, "on this centenary, we celebrate the significant progress that has been achieved through determined advocacy, practical actions and enlightened policy making." Indeed few causes promoted by the UN have generated more widespread support than the campaign to promote and protect equal rights for women. Much progress has been made to protect and promote women's rights in recent time. The Secretary General further adds in his message; "yet in too many countries and societies, women remain second class citizens. Although the gender gap in education is closing, there are wide differences within and across countries, and far too many girls are still denied schooling, leave prematurely or complete school with fewer skills and fewer opportunities". There are still so many millions of girls who reach puberty and see no path before them other than finding a man to ensure their survival. What happens when a girl has no option but to be financially dependent? It means she will serve and submit and endure unacceptable discrimination and violence often at the hands of her partner.

According to the UN, nowhere in the world can women claim to have all the same opportunities as men. The majority of the world's 1.3 billion absolute poor are women. On average women receive 30 to 40 per cent less pay than men earn for the same work.

While a celebration of progress, IWD is also a time to acknowledge the struggles women still grapple with around the globe. I clearly see the relevance of this day to me as a woman myself and the challenge this situation poses for me to take action. As I reflect, my thoughts go to my mother, who like many other activists, has given herself to, informing, contributing, enlightening and helping women continue to make strides in realising their potential, thus contributing to the common good. I draw two lessons from my mother about my own life — devotion and resoluteness to a just cause.

I invite my fellow women to learn more about issues confronting women today and to act accordingly. We should take stock of the efforts we are making to help our sisters climb out of prisons in which they still find themselves. For many women, there are horrendous realities which they have to cope with and which cannot be ignored. There are storms to be weathered and injustices to be fought. Yet there is enough reason to celebrate, more importantly, to look ahead at the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women. Together we can make this happen.

IWD is also a time to reflect on the achievements of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) who bring forward issues of women for wider discussion. The relentless advocacy has led to the successes we are celebrating today. To Civil Society advancing women's issues; this day represents the gains you have made in your numerous engagements and accords you an opportunity to learn more about the work that still needs to be done. You have done it for the girl who could not go to school simply because she is a girl. You did it for the women who are in Parliament. You have done it for the women who need treatment for HIV and AIDS. However, you realise as you celebrate that not all women are celebrating with you as equality remains elusive. There are still women suffering in all kinds of ways.

At the JCTR we take Jesus to be the model of our mission which is to inculcate from a faith inspired perspective critical understanding of current issues. It is worth reflecting at this stage what the mission of Jesus was with women and for women. Against the prevailing culture of his time, Jesus courageously accepted and recognized women's equality, dignity and giftedness. His great sensitivity and respect for women are an invitation for renewal of society's perception of women. In commemorating the IWD, let us return to the source of our faith for guidance in confronting women's issues.

In reflecting on this very important day, I want to end the column by saying, whether as individuals, international organisations and civil society or Government; International Women's Day is not just any other event. It calls us to reflect deeply about the barriers women continue to face and to put in measures that remove these barriers so that together, we can realise integral human development.



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