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Celebrating half the world’s population

Tuesday March 05, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

In two days’ time the world will celebrate half its population.

On International Women’s Day – a public holiday in some countries–the Cook Islands will join the rest of the global community in recognising the economic, political, and social achievements of women past, present, and future.

I often write about the discrimination and oppression women continue to face, even in the modern era. I write about domestic violence, which I and many others consider an epidemic in the Cook Islands. I’ve written about young men who, after being repeatedly convicted of assaulting their partners, stride away from the courthouse with little more than a verbal slap on the wrist. I spend a disproportionate amount of time daydreaming about how we, as individuals, can collaborate to put an end to this violence and create safe havens for women who for too long have endured it.

I think it’s important that we are mindful of the challenges women deal with and the reality that a gender gap still exists. It’s important that we remember violence against women is still rampant all over the world. Indeed, the UN has prioritised violence against women by naming it the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day.

It’s important that we continue to shine light into the darkness of a silently raging pandemic, but just for today, I want to change my tune.

This week, in honour of International Women’s Day, I think we should pause to pay tribute to local women who have broken barriers.

I hate to bore you with a history lesson, but I want to take stock of the sacrifices that women have made to afford later generations of women rights and opportunities.

In 1908, thousands of women marched through New York City demanding higher pay and the right to vote, and sparking protests across the United States.

They planted the seeds that gave rise to National Women’s Day in 1909, and to International Women’s Day the following year. More than a million people worldwide attended rallies campaigning for women’s rights that year, in 1911, lending the international movement massive momentum.

Six years later women in Russia protested until their dictator abdicated, and the interim government that filled the political void ended up granting women the right to vote. In 1920, the United States, the birthplace of the women’s movement, granted its women the same right.

Now, nearly a century later, International Women’s Day is officially a public holiday in 27 countries, from Asia to the Caribbean to Africa. Groups all over the world organize events to celebrate the progress women have made in the last century. In recent decades, International Women’s Day has assumed positive undertones, an observation recorded on its official website.

“With more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass of women’s visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life, one could think that women have gained true equality,” reads a statement on www.internationalwomensday.com.

“The unfortunate fact is that women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women’s education, health and the violence against them is worse than that of men.

“However, great improvements have been made. We do have female astronauts and prime ministers, school girls are welcomed into university, women can work and have a family, women have real choices. And so the tone and nature of (International Women’s Day) has, for the past few years, moved from being a reminder about the negatives to a celebration of the positives.”

On Friday, I propose we celebrate the positives. (Disclaimer: I’m far from finished writing about the gender gap.) On Friday, let’s remember we’ve got a female Speaker of the House and, as of recently, three women in Parliament. (That’s triple the number of females in Parliament just last year.)

Reflecting on how far women have come, I think of Barbara and Lynnsay nursing an aquaponics venture in Titikaveka. I think of government’s provision of paid maternity leave for private sector employees and the inspiring work of the National Council of Women. I think of the women in management positions both public and private, and the myriad women who earn their income making tivaivai or oil, weaving maire, selling fruit at the market.

I think of the Pan Pacific and Southeast Asian Women’s Association, which encourages women to be harbingers of peace, and the women of the Are Ariki and the Koutu Nui. I think of the women who put in hard yards aboard Marumaru Atua.

I think of the three women who are now collaborating to write a new television series probing women’s issues, and the Vital Voices team that’s devised a scheme whereby women can seek help from other women in their economic field.

I think of Rarotonga’s new friend, Hillary Clinton, who many believe is positioning herself to run for president of the United States in 2016.

And I think of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Women of the Cook Islands, believe in your dreams. They will shape the future of this beautiful country.

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