For more than a century, March 8 has been celebrated as "Women's Day". In over a hundred countries spanning all parts of the globe, governments and civil society mark the day as a measuring point to assess women's empowerment.
The role of women as important partners for the progress is well established. We no longer have to offer statistical analyses of development indicators to demonstrate that nations that value women's participation tend to do better. At the other end, sidelining fifty percent of the population creates disparities in performance and eventually leads to instability as expectations out strip reality.
Recent history highlights political change with women's participation. Women leaders increasingly lead political movements. For example, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led Liberia through war to political democracy. Yulia Tymoshenko was the first female prime minister of Ukraine and joined the current turmoil as she was released from prison.
The ranks of female heads of state and government have swelled in the last decade. Yet, an enormous discrepancy remains in the way nations offer opportunities to their women. Even where education and employment maybe restricted across the board, women can come up through the political ranks to lead major nations. Muslim societies often represent this trend, as the example of Benazir Bhutto who became prime minister two separate times indicates. Bangladesh has had two female prime ministers even as the total number of women in leadership position remains well below the status accorded men.
Even as the number of Women’s Empowerment programs has multiplied globally, they have often become reflections of a divided political scene. In the U.S., Democrats showcase their own players. Hillary Clinton represents an icon for partisan pledges of empowerment. Unfortunately within this group, Republicans are accused of limited interest and fewer players who cover the field.
The fact is that "Women Who Inspire" spans political, cultural and religious divides. In an ever more partisan milieu today, one would have hoped that women's empowerment would distinguish itself as one arena where all women could come together for the common good. After all, only a common theme of Women's Empowerment and a shared effort will get us across the finish line.
In a globalized world, sharing the vision of today's women leaders with students, future leaders, is a solemn obligation. Role models cutting across faith, politics, professions enrich the discussion and broaden the rules of engagement.
Why Does It Matter?
Women comprise fifty percent of the population. Globally, women are redefining markets and creating growth by focusing their spending on purchases of food, education, health, and financial services (Goldman Sachs). Women are responsible for $20 trillion in spending, a figure that is expected to rise by 2014 to $28 trillion.
Women's earning power is growing faster than that of men in the developing world where their earned incomes have increased by 8.1% compared to 5.8% for that of men (Deloitte study). Recent Catalyst surveys found a strong correlation between gender diversity in the leadership ranks of business and a company's performance.
Recognizing these many factors, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted that progress of women is tied to the development of nations and that women's education, economic progress, access to justice and participation in conflict resolution are key to peace and security.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called women's empowerment the "unfinished business of the 21st century."
The state of women varies around the world. Despite economic disparities, some trends are shared. Opportunity for economic participation and leadership remains a challenge. Issues connected with violence against women and human trafficking are found in the developed and developing world.
Today's focus on the Muslim world sheds light on uneven and often sliding progress. For example, in Afghanistan where the Constitution gives 30 % participation level for women in the political system, cultural bias and intimidation even keeps the number well below the limit.
Yet, there are examples of women leaders who break the barrier and inspire. Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, Arab women who braved authority in the streets pushing for Arab Spring, Iranian women who protested against rigged elections and participated for change, professionals in so many parts of the Islamic world who daily work for change. While many have a platform because they are the daughters, wives, mothers of male leaders, there are countless others who no longer accept the status quo that leaves them permanently disadvantaged.
(Photo Credit: internationalwomensday.com)