Equality for Women a Distant Goal in the World

EgyptEgyptian women demanding equal rights on the 100th anniversary of International?Women’s?Day were shoved by men who said they should go home where they belong. Congolese women asked their government to protect them from systematic rapes, and women in Croatia who lost their jobs accused the government of corruption.

But the centennial anniversary of the day established by socialist women to promote better working conditions, the right to vote and hold public office, and equality with men, also was marked Tuesday by festivities including dancing in the street in South Korea’s capital and a 10-kilometer run by some 8,000 women in Mexico City.

Super-sleuth James Bond actor Daniel Craig got into the act ? trading his signature suit for a flowing blond wig, print dress, pearls and heels for a short film marking the day that highlights the inequalities faced by women around the world.

Speaking at U.N. headquarters in New York, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recalled that 100 years ago “gender equality was a largely radical idea.”

While progress since then should be celebrated, he said, “We must also remember that ? in too many countries and in too many societies ? women remain second-class citizens, denied their fundamental rights, deprived of legitimate opportunity.”

Their second-class status was evident in Cairo’s now famous Tahrir Square, which protesters who succeeded in ousting President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 used as their base. Hundreds of women ? some in headscarves and flowing robes, others in jeans ? who marched to the square to celebrate the anniversary, demand equality and an end to sexual harassment were soon outnumbered by men who chased them out.

“They said that our role was to stay home and raise presidents, not to run for president,” said Farida Helmy, a 24-year-old journalist.

In troubled Ivory Coast, thousands of women defiantly marched to the bloodstained street where seven female demonstrators armed only with tree branches symbolizing peace were brutally killed last week by soldiers in armored personnel carriers who opened fire.

The women had tried to march every day since Thursday’s attack but lost their nerve in the face of an army loyal to strongman Laurent Gbagbo who has refused to relinquish the presidency to the internationally recognized winner of the November election, Alessane Ouattara.

The women escaped attack Tuesday, but hours later the army burst into Treichville, the downtown neighborhood where they marched, and killed at least four civilians. Reporters saw the bodies of three men and one woman on the blood-splattered floor of a clinic.

In Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, the president’s wife, Olive Kabila, joined the march against rape, which has long been used as a weapon of war in the country. At least 8,300 rapes were reported in 2009 but aid workers say the true toll is much higher.

In Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, and the Adriatic port of Rijeka, protesters marking International?Women’s?Day demanded jobs and called for the government to resign. In Manila, demonstrators demanded justice for “comfort women” forced into prostitution in World War II, and in Gaza, hundreds of Palestinian women called for an end to the rift between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank.

At an all-star gathering of women in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said women must be included in any process of democratic reform in the Middle East.

“In the coming months and years, the women in Egypt and Tunisia and other nations have just as much right as the men to remake their governments ? to make them responsive, accountable, transparent,” she told the audience that included First Lady Michelle Obama and the female president of Kyrgyzstan and prime minister of Australia.

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who now heads the new U.N. agency to promote women’s rights, said the pioneering women who launched the annual commemoration would probably look at the world today “with a mixture of pride and disappointment.”

Over one million women and men took to the streets in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on what was originally called International Working Women’s?Day on March 19, 1911 to demand an end to discrimination.

The day became popular in Eastern Europe, Russia and the former Soviet bloc, and eventually spread around the globe. In some regions, it lost its political flavor and became an occasion for men to express their love for women with candy and flowers while in other regions, women’s struggle for human rights and political and social equality remained the focus.

In 1975, during International?Women’s Year, the United Nations began celebrating March 8 as International?Women’s?Day. Two years later the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a day for women’s rights and international peace.

Despite major progress over the last 100 years, “the hopes of equality expressed on that first International?Women’s?Day are a long way from being realized,” said Bachelet, who became the first executive director of UN Women in January.

Girls are still less likely to be in school than boys, almost two-thirds of illiterate adults are women, and every 90 seconds a woman dies in pregnancy or due to childbirth-related complications despite the knowledge and resources to make births safe, she said. Women also continue to earn less than men for the same work and have unequal inheritance rights and access to land.

Despite some high-profile advances, Bachelet said, only 28 women are heads of state or government and just 8 percent are peace negotiators. Last week, the Inter-Parliamentary reported that while the number of women in legislatures reached an all-time high of 19.1 percent in 2010, “the target of gender balance in politics is still a distant one.”

Associated Press writers Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Cairo and Rukmini Callimachi in Abidjan contributed to this report along with other AP staffers.

Source: The Associated Press.