March 8th, 2012 marked the 101st annual celebration of International Women’s Day. Originally conceived in Europe in 1911 to draw attention to the struggle for women’s equal participation in society, IWD has become both a day of celebration and an opportunity to highlight the progress still needed to achieve women’s equality. Certainly, great gains have been made. In Canada, women can get a job, vote, and run for office – but we still can’t count on walking down the street at night unmolested or be certain that our reproductive rights will be safeguarded. Sexism and violence against women continue to represent significant threats to the health of all women.
For example – the Canadian Foreign Affairs Department just published a booklet suggesting that single women travelling alone should wear a fake wedding ring and carry photos of their fake husbands to avoid unwanted sexual advances. Let me get this straight: unmarried women are more likely to experience sexual harassment, because they are perceived as “fair game,” but the presence of a ring identifies them as belonging to another man, and thus they become off limits, out of deference to that man? How empowering. What’s next – if a woman gets assaulted on vacation we chide her for not being savvy enough to fake marriage?
The tragic murders of four Shafia family women in Kingston, Ontario have been hotly debated in the media. Did these deaths represent so-called “honour killings” or were they domestic violence? One can only characterize these senseless and preventable deaths as related to some man’s “honour” if one accepts that the dead women were his property – which they were not. When eldest daughter Zainab – a beautiful and vibrant young woman – reported to authorities that she was afraid of her father and brother, they responded by asking her to repeat that in front of them. Of course, she did not, because she was afraid. This is domestic violence, or more accurately male violence, at its most heinous – helped along by a perversely inept system that did not protect those women.
R & B singer Chris Brown recently attended the Grammy Awards three years after assaulting his then-girlfriend singer Rihanna. Tweets fly fast and furious about whether or not he should have been allowed to attend – but none more distressing than those by young women tweeting such things as “Chris Brown can mess me up any day” – leaving a fifty year old feminist like myself shaking my head and saying, “WTF?” The pervasive culture of violence against women is taught and learned by each generation and it begs the question – why are we not doing better by young women – and young men?
South of the border, the “Blunt amendment” was narrowly (very narrowly) defeated in the American Senate. If passed, this would have allowed any corporation whose CEO opposes contraception based on his “moral convictions” to deny all coverage of birth control or any other health care service to the company’s employees. Women my age remember rallying in the streets to safeguard our rights to reproductive choice. I bet none of us trust that it can’t be snatched away in the blink of a legislative eye.
While heart disease and cancer kill most of us Canadian women in the end – the global scourge of sexism affects women’s health and the health care available to us our whole lives. This year on IWD, I will celebrate and honour the women who have fought for our rights because in doing so they have fought for the health of all women.