Feature Article of Monday, 8 March 2010

Columnist: Twum-Baah, N. Amma

International Women’s Day: Why Should I Care?

A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago if there was going to be a special AG issue celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD). Given the fact that AG is a publication dedicated to women, her inquisition was well placed. I told her “yes;” for what kind of online-publication for “women” kind of editor would I be if I told her that March 8th had totally slipped my mind as one of the important days to be celebrated this year? The next celebration I was looking forward to was Mother’s Day in May – which basically celebrates women (even though you have to be a mother to be counted really significant on that day).

As I thought about feeling ashamed for this all too important oversight while being cautious not to let women in on my betrayal of womanhood, I decided to do some soul-searching on how and why this day had slipped my mind. Is it that I have never heard of International Women’s Day? No, that’s not it. I have heard about it year after year after year. Is it that I think celebrating International Women’s Day is unnecessary today? Far from it. Women still have a ways to go despite all we have achieved. There is always a reason to celebrate womanhood for we make the world go round. Where would the world be without women? But then, where would the world be without men too? When one takes a moment to study the history behind International Women’s Day, however, you get a sense of its importance now, and its importance going forward. It is the importance ‘then,’ ‘before,’ and ‘when’ it was first implemented that is totally lost on me as a woman of African descent. IWD began as a woman’s rights struggle in the United States in the early 1900s. Women at the time were fighting for better pay, voting rights and shorter work hours. At an international conference of working women in Copenhagen in 1910, it was decided that every country every year should set aside a day (the same day) to be called Women’s Day. The purpose of setting aside this day was to “press for women’s demands.” The conference was attended by 100 women from 17 countries. There was unanimous approval in favor of the suggestion of what was to be called “Women’s Day,” and on March 11, 1911, Women’s Day was honored for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. To mark the celebrations, there were rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, to vote, to be trained, to hold public office and to end discrimination. It is normal human behavior to ask “how does this concern me?” “Why should I care?” and “How does this benefit me?” As I was reading up on the history of IWD, these questions and more kept flooding my mind and all I kept asking myself as a Ghanaian woman was this: “how does this affect me as an African woman, and how does it affect me as a Ghanaian woman in particular?”

Of all the things the women gathered in Copenhagen to fight for, the fight to end discrimination, is the only fight I can relate to as a woman of African descent.

In 1910 when non African working women met in Europe to fight for the right to work less hours, Ghanaian women were fighting to keep their families sane and free from colonial rule. We had bigger issues than a right to vote and the right for wages. The only demand we had then was to be free on our own land. The only desire we had then was that the colonial masters stopped separating our children from their fathers and stopped yanking children from their mother’s breasts never to be reunited.

Then I thought about voting rights and the same thought crossed my mind. Heck, even our men didn’t have that luxury then, so how could we? Come to think of it, I don’t remember my grandmother or my mother ever having to fight for voting rights because democracy is new to us. If only they had had the luxury of having a democratic government then maybe they could have joined in the fight for the right to vote. But, who is to even say they would have had to fight for that right? Our men know better than to stop us women from doing anything we set our minds to do.

Before democracy, there was dictatorship and fearful rule. Before that, there was a fight for independence and political instability. And before that we were held captive and helpless ruled by colonialism and, yet again, fear! Obviously, there were no African women or African countries represented in Copenhagen at the time the vote was made. And some will find it ironic that the women who met around that conference table fighting for their rights were infringing on the very same rights of their black maids – the ones they had left back home to be raped and whipped by whosoever chose to do so. Those maids who were working for free!

We may have had our share of discrimination though; and we still encounter this wherever we go – and it doesn’t only come from our men – but that fight was not our fight. It never was, and it never has been.

The United Nations officially made March 8 International Women’s Day in 1975. By the year 1999, however, International Women’s Day had taken on new meaning as it was celebrated across developed and developing countries alike. It was no longer a day set aside to “demand rights,” but a day set aside to recognize and celebrate the achievements of women. Now, when you put it like that, how can I say I am justified in forgetting this significant day? How can I say it is an unimportant day, and how can I justifiably say this day does not affect me in any way? I can definitely not find this day insignificant when it’s a day set aside to celebrate the achievements of African women! I cannot justify forgetting this day when it is a day set aside to celebrate my grandmothers before me, and a mother who has done nothing but sacrifice and worry and give, asking and taking not much in return. How can I find this day insignificant when this day is to raise up high the African girl child and ensure that her future is “bright, equal, safe and rewarding?” How can I find this day insignificant, when today we celebrate a woman at the helm of affairs of government in Liberia slowly healing the wounds of war and separation and mistrust and anger? When I look at all the women around me, seriously, how can I forget? Now that’s a celebration I can get with!

Happy International Women’s Day Ladies! We sure have come a mighty long way!