PWH Deputy Director LaShawn Jefferson on International Women's Day

What International Women’s Day Means to Me, and What it May Mean to You, Too

By LaShawn Jefferson, Perry World House Deputy Director

Though there were earlier celebrations, the UN General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the day for women’s rights and world peace in 1977.  Since then, and with increasing participation and energy, people around the world have used International Women’s Day (IWD) to celebrate and honor women’s achievements in all aspects of life.  IWD essentially is a day when the world pauses to recognize women’s full human rights and contributions.   

However, it’s important that IWD not be a day only of reflection and celebration, but of organizing for action around specific policies and practices to improve women’s lives and to ensure that we create environments that enable and promote the exercise and enforcement of women’s full human rights. There is no lasting resolution of our most pressing global policy concerns without addressing the women’s human rights implications of them.

I have spent of all my professional life in one way or another working to advance women’s human rights.  I committed to doing this work over two decades ago because I find injustice generally, and sexism and misogyny in particular, utterly intolerable.  Equally important, I thought such work was the best path to achieve broader social justice and to create the type of (better) world we all deserve to live in. 

To do women’s rights work is essentially a political act.  It is meant to contest patriarchy and all the structures that support it; transform the way we treat one another; and create laws, policies, and practices that are rooted in human rights and justice – in short,  create a more just world not just for women but for everyone else as well. 

Women’s human rights work transforms not only society at large but also the individual.  It requires one to reconsider almost everything – financial and other systems based on free, cheap or undervalued female labor; governance structures that are largely male dominated and male informed; gender dynamics in relationships that reinforce women’s subordinate practical status; education systems that curtail girls’ access or undermine them while they are there (including by failing to adequately prosecute sexual violence); the normalization of violence against women as entertainment; gender expression as a point of societal censure; climate change mitigation strategies that fail to recognize women’s critical decision making roles and management of natural resources; family structures predicated on male authority and decision making; the yoking of female sexuality and practice to male “honor;” tax systems that enable corporate greed at the expense of social programs for a collective and common good;  the deeply segregated workforce that helps keep women across the world poor; female reproductive rights subjected to male decision making; etc. It’s all there to be fixed, reimagined, and made more just.

Lucky for all of us, one sees mass and sustained mobilization and action of women across the world in defense of women’s human rights and a more just world.  This activism takes place in small and large ways.  It’s the indigenous women’s rights group in Guatemala fighting for control of natural resources; it’s the South Sudanese women’s groups fighting for peace; it’s the Brazilian transgender rights groups stopping violence against trans women; it’s the Ugandan women’s rights groups fighting for land rights; it’s the Afghan women’s rights groups fighting to stop “honor” crimes; it’s American women fighting religious fundamentalism; it’s Japanese women fighting a corporate culture that objectifies them relegates them to lower-level potions; it’s Indonesian women fighting for greater corporate accountably; it’s Russian female journalists fighting state corruption; and it’s Saudi activists fighting for greater political participation.

In my world every day is International Women’s Day -- a day in which women live free, equal, and with full agency to live their lives in a way that they see fit, free from discrimination and violence. 

You don’t have to wait until the next March 8th to honor the spirit and intent of International Women’s Day.