Reflections on International Women’s Day

International Women's Day

International Women’s Day was in early March but this year’s celebrations stretched out into April.

I attended a variety of events which focused on progress made both in Scotland and internationally.  I wanted to capture my thoughts about what challenges still face women in their day to day lives.

Ahead of this year’s celebrations on 8 March, I visited Edinburgh University to speak to members of its International Development Society. The issue of women’s empowerment was also on the agenda at our Scottish Labour conference this year when we met in Perth.   Last week I met with members of Milan for a belated celebration of International Women’s Day and visited Shakhti to see the impact of Edinburgh Cyrenian’s FairShare project which supports women from ethnic minority communities fleeing domestic violence.

Milan is an Edinburgh based charity supporting the welfare needs of senior citizens from south East Asian ethnic minority communities across the Lothians.  It was good to see and discuss the benefits of practical support for women from a range of backgrounds.   It’s also been a chance to reflect on what more we need to do to support women overcome discrimination and achieve a more equal society,

International Women’s Day has been observed since the early 1900s – a time period of significant unrest and debate among women over issues of oppression and equality.   Over the last century, so much has been achieved for women’s rights, especially in the developed world.  However, the cause is far from won.

Statistics show that in Scotland women continue to earn less than their male counterparts, that they make up the majority of those dependent on state pensions and pension credits and that they are more likely to be in part-time work.

Meanwhile, domestic abuse is increasing with over 60,000 incidents recorded by police in 2012/13.  Over the years, I have worked to support organisations such as Zero Tolerance, Edinburgh Women’s Aid and  Shakhti to highlight the issue of domestic abuse and to call for action.

Against this backdrop, International Women’s Day is a celebration of all that has been achieved in the fight for gender equality and a reminder of the challenges that lay ahead.

As Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on International Development I’m keen that we address and highlight the international aspect of gender equality.   We need to use our hard fought victories in the UK to secure support for women in their continuing struggles in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The United Nations has been promoting the Millennium Development Goals – a set of eight ambitions including the promotion of gender equality in the developing world. The MDG sets a specific target to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education in all levels of education no later than 2015.

An update of this MDG was provided in September 2013, noting that gender parity has been achieved in primary schooling world wide.  However, access to primary education is not the same as attendance and while narrowing, gaps in attendance between boys and girls are still evident. Further down the education path, access to secondary and further education remain highly unequal.

Poverty is at the root of unequal access to education in the developing world.  Many young women and girls are unable to go to school as they are required to spend many hours fetching water or cannot afford more than the most basic primary level of education.

Improving access to education empowers women, helping to break down sexist attitudes and opening opportunities for women to access employment.  However, as the UN has noted women continue to enter the labour market on an unequal basis.  While women’s share of paid employment in the developing world has increased slowly to 40%, the jobs that women take often do not offer financial security or social benefits.

In March last year, I participated in a Parliament delegation to Malawi where I had the opportunity to learn about the challenges facing women in their society.  My experiences ranged from the distressing to the inspiring.

One day during the trip, I visited Joyful Motherhood, a Mary’s Meals supported project which provides support for the development of babies who have been orphaned.  The country faces high levels of childbirth related deaths.  The prevalence of HIV/AIDS and the remoteness of communities from hospital facilities are contributing factors.

The following day, I met members of Theatre for Change, a project educating communities in Malawi about HIV/AIDS through the use of interactive theatre.  The top three groups of people most vulnerable to the condition are sex workers, police officers and teachers.  I saw the appalling conditions where sex workers, some as young as 11, live and work.

On the final day of the visit, I saw some of the inspiring work that is helping to address these challenges and empower women.  I met with some of Malawi’s female MPs who have been working with Scotland’s Active Learning Centre on local workshops to promote community engagement.

I spoke to them about the Scottish experience of encouraging women into politics and retaining their skills.  The event culminated in a commitment from Malawi’s main political parties to stronger support for women.  The acid test will be in the elections to the Malawian Assembly that will take place on 20 May.

International Women’s Day offers the chance to reflect on these and other issues around the world – to celebrate all of the achievements that have brought us closer to gender equality while recognising the scale of the challenge that remains.  There’s still much to do in the UK too in terms of equal pay, better employment and training opportunities and affordable nursery access for working mums.   Ensuring that women have equal access to participate in our political process is is vital which is why I’m a strong supporter of the work of the Edinburgh Labour Women’s Forum campaign to increase the level of women’s representation at all levels of public life.