The challenge of and for women

By Mary Barby P. Badayos-Jover, PhD


Today is International Women’s Day.  A few years ago this would have passed as any other day for many of us. Now, we are overwhelmingly reminded of it in surprising, sometimes unlikely, ways—from text messages of merchants, to store discounts exclusive for women, amusing restaurant gimmicks and even in the youtube video content of so-called social media influencers. Then there are, of course, the obligatory Women’s Day activities conducted by governmental institutions, ranging from themed t-shirt wearing to caravans, lectures, luncheons and bazaars. Through the years, the significance of March 8 has evolved and became synonymous to “women appreciation day”. On one hand, we do, indeed, still need to be reminded of women’s contributions to society and to celebrate women’s achievements despite widespread and well-entrenched gender discrimination. In that sense, we really have to set aside at least one day to appreciate what women do and yes, make the women feel such appreciation. On the other hand, people’s increased awareness of International Women’s Day  and their jump into the politically-correct bandwagon to declare their token adherence to upholding women’s and gender rights, seemed to have diluted the focus. We now tend to forget why we have to make such conscious efforts in the first place, when we are simply promoting and protecting women’s basic human rights. What’s with all the fuss then?

International Women’s Day highlights women’s historical and continuing struggle to achieve gender parity in society. Indeed, it has been such a slow and protracted struggle peppered with detours and splinters. March 8 as International Women’s Day is traced back to a massive rally of 15,000 female garment factory workers in New York City, way back in 1908. Those female workers demanded improved working conditions, better pay and the right to vote. The following year, the Socialist Party of the US was the first to declare a National Working Women’s Day. In 1910, at an international conference of working women held in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin suggested that there should be an International [Working] Women’s Day and so in 1911, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland celebrated the first International Women’s Day. Then in March 8, 1917, women in wartime Russia staged what came to be known as the “strike for bread and peace”. Four days after the said women’s strike, the Tsar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government granted Russian women the right to vote. However, it was not until 1975 that the United Nations officially recognized International Women’s Day, paying homage to the March 8, 1908 New York City women’s strike. Coincidentally, 1975-1985 was declared by the UN as the Decade of Women. It has been 46 years since 1975 and here we are now, with widespread public recognition of March 8 as International Women’s Day. And yet—working women still bear the bulk of housework, are still being subjected to gender discrimination and violence, and are still being looked down upon by male political leaders as not having the capacity to govern.

Indeed, the struggle is still very much real for women as we try to simply live out our lives as best we could. In the same way that our foremothers had to endure ridicule and even torture while fighting for something as basic as equal pay and the right to vote, we still get reminded of our socially-ascribed “inadequacies” practically everyday, in ways we least expect. In my own life and work, I still encounter belittling as a woman in various intensities and in different contexts. I can vividly recall that in my final panel interview for a very prestigious international academic scholarship, I was asked why it even occurred to me to leave behind my 4-year-old child in my husband’s care in order to pursue graduate studies abroad. What was distressing was the fact that the question was asked of me by another woman. Then I found it ironic and maybe even a bit amusing that a male panel member came to my aid as I answered the question. He expressed his incredulity that my being a mother would factor in my bid to get the scholarship.  Granted, he was not a Filipino, but the irony still stands. Anyway, I got the scholarship, breezed through my PhD studies, returned home and worked as an administrator of a university gender office, all the while encountering the questions – “Why is there a women’s day? Do men also get their day?” – every time the month of March comes along. These questions usually come from male colleagues. My typical flippant answer to such questions would be, “Well everyday is already men’s day while women get just one day out of the year to call their own”. I am, of course, alluding to the patriarchal structures and practices we still subscribe to in this country that oftentimes deny women the same entitlements as men.

So while we now associate International Women’s Day with privileges deemed exclusive for women, we must never forget that women’s fight for a more gender-equal and equitable world is long in the making and is ongoing. The COVID-19 pandemic is even said to have unfortunately wiped out 25 years of achievements, especially with increased gender-based violence occurring as women got stuck with their perpetrators at home, for long periods of time. UN data shows that we will not see gender equity and equality happening in our lifetime and even in our children’s lifetime. Therefore our time and effort should go beyond the superficial or even commercial appreciation of International Women’s Day. We should build on our gains and strengthen organizations founded by women and fighting for women’s interests. Let us not allow male-centric and gender-blind politics to further derail what we have achieved thus far. Let us be true to this year’s international theme for Women’s Day and choose to challenge rather than remain complacent in our tokenisms. Indeed, from challenge comes change. The current administration’s 5-year national theme, “making change work for women”, will only be felt if we all rise up and truly challenge gender inequities in all its intersecting forms. Happy Women’s Day to all of us! #ChoosetoChallenge and #MakeChangeWorkForWomen

(Dr. Mary Barby P. Badayos-Jover holds a dual-title PhD in Rural Sociology and Women’s Studies from The Pennsylvania State University. She teaches and undertakes research on gender and political dynamics at the University of the Philippines Visayas, is a member of the Philippine Commission on Women’s National GAD Resource Pool, and is one of the few gender experts in the country accredited to extend technical assistance on GAD mainstreaming.)