International Women’s Day: Tracing the Origins and Significance…

By Meron Abraha

As the months of March sets in, it’s not only the start of spring that we celebrate but also a far nobler event of global importance: the eighth of the month marks International Women’s Day.

Taking off from a socialist cause over a century ago, the celebration has today become an event where women’s economic, social, and political achievements are reflected on.

As people, if we are to build a more peaceful, prosperous, and just world, then we will definitely need to abandon circumscribing the participation of women, who in most societies constitute half of the total population, and hence half of the potential workforce and production.

Equally, in Eritrea, women have always played a central role in the national development. They fought alongside their male counterparts during Eritrea’s struggle for independence, and to this day continue their contribution towards nation building.

Only when women are engaged at every level of society, can we successfully tackle the challenges that confront us in relation to the environment, security, economics, development, etc… Because, when women make progress, countries make progress. The education of a girl is the most effective development investment that can be made with enormous positive consequences for her future and her family’s future.

Eritrean Girl Education

And it is to remember and celebrate these positives that we observe the International Women’s Day. Annually on 8 March, thousands of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and commemorate achievements.

But how and why was March 8 selected to be women’s day?

The idea of an International Women’s Day first arose at the turn of the century, which in the industrialized world was a period of expansion and turbulence, booming population growth and radical ideologies.

The first National Women’s Day was celebrated in the United States on 28 February 1909. Women continued to celebrate it on the last Sunday of that month through 1913.

An international conference, held by socialist organizations from around the world, met in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1910. The conference of the Socialist International proposed a Women’s Day that was designed to be international in character. The proposal initially came from Clara Zetkin, a German socialist, who suggested an International Day to mark the strike of garment workers in the United States. The proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, including the first three women elected to the parliament of Finland. The Day was established to honor the movement for women’s rights, including the right to vote (known as ‘suffrage’). At that time, no fixed date was selected for the observance.

The following year, 1911, International Women’s Day was marked for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. The date was March 19 and over a million men and women took to the streets in a series of rallies. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded the right to work and an end to discrimination on the job.

Less than a week later, on 25 March, the tragic Triangle Fire in New York City took place. Over 140 workers, mostly young Italian and Jewish immigrant girls working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, lost their lives because of the lack of safety measures. The Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union led many of the protests against this avoidable tragedy, including the silent funeral march, which brought together a crowd of over 100,000 people. The Triangle Fire had a significant impact on labor legislation and the horrible working conditions leading up to the disaster were invoked during subsequent observances of International Women’s Day.

As part of the peace movement brewing on the eve of World War I, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February 1913. Elsewhere in Europe, on or around 8 March of the following year, women held rallies either to protest the war or to express solidarity with their sisters.

When the Czar of Russia was later forced to abdicate, the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. That historic Sunday fell on 23 February on the Julian calendar (then in use in Russia), but coincided with 8 March on the Gregorian calendar used by people elsewhere.

And since those early years, International Women’s Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike. Women’s organizations and governments around the world observed the Day annually on March 8 by holding large-scale events that honor women’s advancement and while diligently reminding of the continued vigilance and action required to ensure that women’s equality is gained and maintained in all aspects of life.

Like in Eritrea, International Women’s Day is an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia. In Nepal, China and Madagascar the day is an official holiday for women only. And in some countries, the Day has the equivalent status of Mother’s Day where children give small presents to their mothers and grandmothers.

March 8, International Women’s Day should therefore be an event that calls on people of all walks of life to challenge gender discriminations and ensure equal opportunities for both genders.

And as we celebrate Women’s Day tomorrow yet another time, we salute the strength and commitment of Eritrean women that is still intact, driving them to work even harder to ensure women’s equal participation in all endeavors. We salute the women who are reiterating their readiness to strengthen their resistance against all odds.

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