The significance of International Women's Day

By Pat Sheerattan
Guyana Chronicle
March 11, 2000

MARCH 8 was celebrated as International Women's Day all around the world. The idea of an International Women's Day first arose at the turn of the century, which in the industrialised world was a period of expansion, booming population growth and radical ideologies.

Over the years, International Women's Day (IWD) has taken to the streets, sparked off revolution, met at breakfasts, luncheons, receptions and concerts. IWD has also seen demonstrations at the doors of factories, newspapers and welfare institutions, taking action on violence against women, striking for bread and justice and the recognition of women's work; and has ushered in reform legislation.

Born at a time of great social turbulence and crisis, IWD inherited a tradition of protest and political activism. From the turn of the 20th century, women in industrially developing countries were entering paid work in numbers. Their jobs were sex-segregated, mainly in textiles, manufacturing and domestic services where conditions were very poor and wages very low. Trade Unions were developing and industrial disputes broke out, including among sections of non-unionised women workers.

Many of the changes taking place in women's lives pushed against the political restrictions surrounding them. Throughout Europe, Britain and America, women from all social strata began to campaign for the right to vote.

Since those early years, International Women's Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developing and developed countries. The growing international women's movement, which has been strengthened by four global United Nations women's conferences, has helped to make the commemoration a rallying point for coordinated efforts to demand women's rights and participation in the political and economic process.

Increasingly, International Women's Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of women's rights.

In Guyana, we have made strides in relation to legislative reform and the establishment of a Women's Affairs Bureau. Women's NGOs have increased over the past years and have expanded to include issues relating to empowerment, violence against women, women's participation in leadership positions in society and women's reproductive rights.

Community-based women's organisations have also emerged over the years with their origin mainly in the situation of poverty. They started as craft groups, agriculture groups and feeding programmes. There is little recognition and investment by agencies in strengthening these organisations to grow and develop and respond to their needs.

As we observe IWD at the dawn of this new century, it is time for Guyanese women to develop a new approach in the struggle for equal rights and opportunities. We need to cross race, political party and class barriers. We need to be supportive of each other, to be proud of our sisters' achievements and to honour them with pride. It is time to end suspicions about each other; and hostility towards each other; discourage the use of women's participation in vulgarity and violence. It is time to work towards sisterhood, recognising our creative diversity by learning from each other instead of setting agenda for the less visible cultures within our society.

We need a rallying point for coordinated effort to work for the advancement of women in Guyana. We need a collective voice to demand women's rights and participation in the political and economic process. During this time let us create space for reflection on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by outstanding women who have played an extraordinary role in shaping history.

Portuguese women, European women, Indian women, Chinese women, Amerindian women and African women - Guyanese women - unite as women, share wisdom, speak out and demand change. Can we do it? Yes we can!