The United Nations has declared Wednesday [March 8] International Women's Day. Women make up more than half of the world's population, so it is easy to understand why their challenges and triumphs should be everyone's everyday concerns. Still, Jill Sheffield of Family Care International, says that International Women's Day encourages people to focus on the hard realities. "It makes a time for the whole world to take a pause and say 'What is important here? How are we doing’,” she says. “What do we need to do to really empower women to really live up to their potential?'"
Ever since 1975, the observance has focused on the link between women's health and global economic and social development. A recent study funded by Sheffield's group, the Gates Foundation, and two partner agencies examined which factors play the most important roles in women's health. Sheffield says education turns out to be the most crucial.
"When you have women fully involved, the benefits are visible and right away," she says. "Families are healthier, they are better fed, the family income goes up, and the mortalities go down. And what is good for families is good for communities and really good for countries also."
The study found that, globally, there has been significant improvement in women's education in recent years. Today, almost as many girls as boys are enrolled in secondary schools worldwide. And there are other encouraging developments. In 2005, more women were in the labor force, and more women held elected office than ever before. In the area of reproductive and family health, Jill Sheffield says there is good news and bad news.
"The good news is that family planning is up. 61% of married couples have access to contraception and can plan their pregnancies. This is really important." "The bad news," she says, "is there is a contraceptives shortage. This means that 123 million couples don't have access to them."
Access to adequate medical care and the money to pay for medicine is a severe challenge for many families afflicted by the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Sheffield cites a farm family in Zambia where both husband and wife were infected with the virus, but could afford medicine for only one of them, and were forced to choose which spouse would survive.
"So they had a conversation in the family… They decided he should get the HIV and AIDS treatment, not her, because if she died, he could marry another woman, and she could work the land and take care of the children. But if he died, then she would lose the land to his relatives and would not be able to support the children."
There is more than sadness to glean from this story. It shows, the depth of poverty in Africa, the high cost of drugs and, says Sheffield, “it points to just the terrible savage ravages that HIV and AIDS is bringing to families and people." She adds, "But this story mostly shows the low status of women and that is what the United Nations have pledged to do something about."
Every day, throughout the world, women are doing whatever they can to achieve dignity and equality, and often inspiring women in other parts of the world to take up the fight as well. Charlotte Ponticelli, coordinator for International Women's Issues at the U.S. State Department, points to the grassroots activism of women in Central and South America.
"Women in Latin America have so much that they could impart in terms of experience, ideas, advice to some of their sisters in newly emerging, post-conflict countries," says Ponticelli. She is especially impressed with the women of Colombia and the problems they have faced. “Problems of violence, problems of paramilitaries, of the drug lords -- and yet they have done a fantastic job in terms of political mobilization,” she says. “I have often told our sisters in Iraq about what the women in Colombia have achieved," says Ponticelli.
That's the sort of information sharing and role modeling that organizers of International Women's Day hope will encourage women to continue working to improve their lives.