Today is International Women’s Day, celebrated with hundreds of events around the world designed to call attention to the state of being female in the year 2012.
For example, a music store will host a concert in Portland, Ore. highlighting women composers, and Sudanese Women Empowerment for Peace will sponsor an all-day festival in Khartoum. Christian women in Trinidad and Tobago will gather for an afternoon celebration, and an international team of women is just about to complete a seven-day expedition in the Norwegian Arctic Circle.
It all sounds festive, but as this special day and days like it roll around every year, I become increasingly discouraged. “Really? We’re still doing this?” I ask out loud, naively hoping we might have finally reached the point in our social development when we no longer need to spotlight the condition of people whose lives are difficult simply because they are women. But here we are yet again, and the prospect of gender equality can seem hopeless.
For most of us in “developed” countries, life is no more challenging than it is for men, and our gender plays only a small factor in what we overcome day to day. But for millions of women who happen to have been born female in more patriarchal societies, daily life can be a burden. Merely surviving is the goal.
In wide swaths of the world, women and girls are more likely to live in poverty than men and more likely to be classified as chronically hungry. They are more likely to be victims of violence within their own homes, to be undereducated and to be denied justice and equal rights by their governments than are men living in their same towns and villages.
And they have not brought this gross discrimination upon themselves—women are often working against dispiriting odds. Case in point: even though they produce more than half of the food in developing countries, they own less than 20 percent of the land. How ironic when you consider that, according to U.N. statistics, they could increase farm production enough to lift more than 100 million people out of poverty if only they were granted the same resources as their male counterparts.
On their website, IWD sponsors have provided a series of photos produced by Reuters—perhaps they anticipated we might need some cheering up; and the slideshow, entitled “A Woman’s World,” has become the antidote to my discouragement. In it are candid shots of women playing and working, laughing and in mourning. There are brides, shop owners, athletes, beauty contestants, first aid workers and entrepreneurs.
In one shot, a refugee from Myanmar cares for her small children amidst the squalor of a garbage dump, better than life at home. In another, a lone Chinese woman raises a fist in protest before a row of armed security forces even as she leans on a crutch. And in another, women walk to the school they opened for children in a Jakarta slum.
These images of women living lives so far removed from my own cushioned one gave me hope against the dispiriting statistics because what all these women demonstrate is the will to carve out the best life they are able and to live it fully. Whether it’s the group of women in burqas riding in a taxi in Kabul or the woman burying her son, Spc. Anthony Lightfoot, who was killed in battle in Afghanistan, they are all doing the best they can and hoping for better.
And they live so courageously as to pull me out of my funk, reminding me that seemingly unbeatable odds don’t necessarily define the battle. It’s the forward motion that does it, and sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other can take you far enough toward the goal to count as a win, a small but significant win
So, we mark another day to remember that women around the world, as determined as they may be, still have a long road ahead toward gender equality. I look forward to the year when our calendar will be free of such days, when women everywhere will live as not better than and not less than men, but as equals. Until then, the bravery of today’s women will be our hope.