Every year, the 8th of March rolls around and you are caught up in the midst of all the celebration that is International Women’s Day (IWD). Stores offer discounts in celebration of IWD, women-only picnics are organised, purple cupcakes are baked and iced, IWD websites sell wristbands and purple and white ribbons and all is well.
Is it really though?
This corporate and most often white feminism rebranding of IWD doesn’t aim to represent what IWD stands for, nor does it aim to represent the myriad of women in South Asian countries who are day by day, subjected to the endless wrath of the patriarchy and ultimately, gender discrimination and inequality unlike that of the issues faced by most women in western countries.
There are many things that irk me about the celebration of IWD but the one that really gets to me is the commercialisation of this day. Buying a purple wristband or a badge, wearing red lipstick, eating a cupcake – it denounces the fight that is women’s equality and hands that money right to corporations, whose advocacy of women is often superficial, to fill a quota or to appear like they champion equality. This money could instead go towards supporting women’s rights in South Asian and other countries where fighting for feminism and equality are not a privilege but an everyday struggle. It also seems like a big slap in the face to the millions of women and girls living below the poverty line, making up the deprived population, even more so when poverty and patriarchy are the two major obstacles that stand in the way of reaching gender equality.
This year’s theme for IWD is #ChoosetoChallenge aiming to challenge and ‘call out’ the issues of gender bias, social injustice, discrimination, violence against women, access to education, advancement to leadership and wealth creation for women globally. Essentially, asking people to take on individual responsibility for their actions. Let’s address each of these issues from a South-Asian perspective.
Starting from the basics, improper access to health and education has a substantial influence on human development and wellbeing. The barriers girls in South Asia face to getting an education are unimaginable in the Western world, where domestic work burden, patriarchal attitudes towards educating a girl child, as well as entering puberty and menstruating thwarts any hope of a proper education, the reality being that three out of every five South Asian women are illiterate (Chakraborty; Gender Bias in South Asia) The gender disparity further widens as we venture into the disturbing picture of ‘missing women’ in South Asia where this discrepancy suggests that women are ‘simply’ missing; never born, or dying of chronic malnutrition or never receiving medical care, suggesting that women’s inequality begins from the moment they are born. As a result of poor health-literacy, education and overall health, South Asian women remain significantly invisible in the national economy. While women were found to carry a much greater burden of work than men, the work they do (labour of various types) is not recognised in the national account statistics and as a result, the work borne by women is neither recognised in the data nor considered in socio-economic policy making, all according to a journal article written by Lekha S. Chakraborty; ‘Gender Bias in South Asia’. For the women that are privileged to make their way up to the top and want to partake in decision making for women collectively, they are stopped by the patriarchal norm that is ‘women should not be in power,’ where South Asia has the lowest rate of women’s participation in governance.
You can see why and how the gender disparity is of much needed attention in South Asian countries. So why don’t we instead, invest in the education of girls? Why don’t we invest in the health of girls? Why don’t we invest in sustainable menstruation hygiene products so they can attend school? Why don’t we invest in clean water so children do not get sick and cannot attend school or better, prevent them from dying of cholera? The amount of money spent on consumerism of IWD merchandise could be roughly equivalent to providing the education of one girl’s school in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Bangladesh, your pick.
In the Western world, IWD is trivialised as an easy and marketable way to ‘stay woke’ by institutions but in reality, it serves as a form of tone-deaf detachment and neglect of the stories and struggles of people who are still subject to heavy patriarchy. The resources spent on IWD could be better put into sustainable investments and starting conversations and educating people about the importance of gender equality. By #Choos[ing]toChallenge the very tropes of IWD, you are shifting the conversation to create dynamic and efficient change. There are women and girls out there that need all the help they can get, and how we start helping them is by including them in our conversations and bringing about awareness. This is how real change towards gender equality towards all females occurs. Not by selling trivial goods. Stop commercialising and start challenging.
Written & Illustrated by Upeksha Galappaththie | Edited by Vinhara Goonesekara