I grew up in a European family where my gender did not hold me back from dreaming. I had the privilege of going to an English immersion school in Finland, an international school in Ethiopia, and a Christian academy for junior high – each providing me with an excellent education and with it, opportunities. My best friends in Africa were were Jesse and Jakke, two brothers who took me on all their adventures. We were experts at spotting hyenas in the night and making it around their property without touching the ground once. “Don’t touch the lava,” we would say as we climbed along window sills and fences, letting our imaginations fly.
I can honestly say that I never even considered gender inequality once as a kid. Well, maybe a couple times, but only on the soccer field at recess when the guys would hog the ball.
But one day, when my dad I were visiting Blue Nile Falls with some family from Canada, we saw women working hard in a field, carrying huge loads, while the men sat under a shaded tree chewing khat. Someone in the group made a comment, “oh how typical, the guys watch the women do all the work.”
I didn’t get it. My mom worked hard, and so did my dad. I was sure the men were just taking a break. And perhaps they were.
It wasn’t until I visited Namibia as an 18 year old that I personally felt gender inequality. My friend and I were walking on a sandy road in the desert heat, and a truck full of men drove by. They began to hoot and holler as the truck slowed. No one else was around.
My heart beat wildly. We were terrified. In that moment, my Canadian citizenship, my middle class upbringing, and my academic accomplishments meant nothing. There was only one reality that remained, pounding in my mind: I am a female. When the truck finally moved on, we breathed a sigh of relief.
My fear turned to rage. For the first time I realized that because of my gender, I could not enjoy a peaceful walk alone in the desert, or forest, or mountains without the risk of getting raped, assaulted, or ogled. How dare they take this joy from me? Since then, I have always been slightly jealous of my male friends, whose chances of being assaulted on a morning jog are very unlikely.
My eyes have been opened to the plight of women around the world.
I recently read an enlightening piece by Molly Edmonds that highlights global gender inequality. According to the UN, women do two thirds of the world’s work, receive 10% of the world’s income, and own 1% of the means of production. They often get penalized for taking time off work to care for sick children. Women are at high risk of being physically or sexually abused, and in some areas, rape is used as a weapon of war. There are about 1.5 billion people living on less the a dollar a day, and most of them are women. In some countries, women are not allowed to drive a car, or leave the house without their husband’s permission. Despite making up half the world’s population, women hold only 15.6% of elected representative seats globally. Then there is female infanticide, child brides, and sex trafficking victims. Women are overrepresented in prostitution, especially if they are from an ethnic background that is oppressed or marginalized.
I’ve met many women for which some of these experiences ring true. So you can understand why I am offended when some people say that gender inequality is inconsequential. For some, the concept of gender equality evokes images of aggressive women taking over a business meeting, trampling men under their stilettos. Others get stuck in a conversation about how gender equality threatens to water down the family unit. Those who refuse to explore the world outside of these boundaries clearly misunderstand gender equality altogether. Equality does not threaten the unique differences between men and women, but rather allows us to celebrate them more fully.
I once read the quote of an activist who was imprisoned in South America. She said, “I do not seek women’s rights, but human rights for women.” These words have resonated with me ever since. International Women’s Day is not about women being better than men, or about some secret agenda to take over the world. It is about acknowledging us as human beings and respecting our worth, our contribution, and our legacy.
Today, take some time to celebrate women in your life, to learn about the plight of those around the world, and to invest in the lives of women who are working hard to survive. My husband and I love to make micro-credit loans through KIVA – which allows us to support the dreams of women in developing countries.
Happy International Women’s Day!