International Women’s Day History, Marches And Celebrations

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By Tonny Ingutia

International Women’s Day, or IWD for short, evolved from the labor movement to become a United Nations-recognized annual event (UN).

It began in 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay, and the right to vote. The Socialist Party of America declared the first National Woman’s Day a year later.

Clara Zetkin, a communist activist and advocate for women’s rights, came up with the idea to make the day international. In 1910, she proposed the idea at the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. There were 100 women from 17 countries present, and they unanimously agreed on her suggestion.

It was first celebrated in 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. The centenary was celebrated in 2011, so this year we’re technically celebrating the 111th International Women’s Day.

Things were made official in 1975 when the United Nations started celebrating the day. The first theme adopted by the UN (in 1996) was “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future”.

International Women’s Day has become a date to celebrate how far women have come in society, in politics and in economics, while the political roots of the day mean strikes and protests are organised to raise awareness of continued inequality.

Why 8 March?

Clara’s concept for International Women’s Day had no set date.

It wasn’t formalised until a wartime strike in 1917, when Russian women demanded “bread and peace” – four days into the strike, the Tsar was forced to abdicate, and the provisional government granted women the right to vote.

The women’s strike began on Sunday, February 23, according to the Julian calendar, which was in use in Russia at the time. This day in the Gregorian calendar was March 8th, and it is still celebrated today.

Why do people wear the colour purple?

Purple, green and white are the colours of IWD, according to the International Women’s Day website.

“Purple signifies justice and dignity. Green symbolizes hope. White represents purity, albeit a controversial concept. The colours originated from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in the UK in 1908,” they say.

How is Women’s Day celebrated?

International Women’s Day is a national holiday in many countries, including Russia where flower sales double during the three or four days around 8 March.

In China, many women are given a half-day off work on 8 March, as advised by the State Council.

In Italy, International Women’s Day, or la Festa della Donna, is celebrated by the giving of mimosa blossoms. The origin of this tradition is unclear but it is believed to have started in Rome after World War Two.

In the US, the month of March is Women’s History Month. A presidential proclamation issued every year honours the achievements of American women.

Is there an International Men’s Day?

There is indeed, on 19 November.

But it has only been marked since the 1990s and isn’t recognised by the UN. People celebrate it in more than 80 countries worldwide, including the UK.

The day celebrates “the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities”, according to the organisers, and aims to highlight positive role models, raise awareness of men’s well-being, and improve gender relations.

What is the IWD 2023 theme?

The UN’s theme for 2023 is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. This theme aims to recognise and celebrate the contribution women and girls are making to technology and online education.

This year, IWD will also explore the impact of the digital gender gap on inequality for women and girls, as the UN estimates that women’s lack of access to the online world will cause a $1.5 trillion loss to gross domestic product of low and middle-income countries by 2025 if action isn’t taken.

But there are also other themes around. The International Women’s Day website – which says it’s designed to “provide a platform to help forge positive change for women” – has chosen the theme #EmbraceEquity with organisers and events seeking to “challenge gender stereotypes, call out discrimination, draw attention to bias, and seek out inclusion”.

Why is IWD important

In the past year, women in many countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine and the US have been fighting for their rights amid war, violence and policy changes in their respective countries.

In Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban has hindered advancements in human rights with women and girls now banned from higher education, working most jobs outside of the home, travelling long distances without a male chaperone and they are instructed to cover their faces in public.

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Since then, demonstrations have continued across the country with many Iranians – both female and male – calling for better rights for women and a change from the current political leadership. “Woman, life, freedom” is the slogan of the protests. Authorities have portrayed them as “riots” and responded with force. More than 500 people have died.

Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on 24 February 2022, the UN report that gender gaps in food insecurity, malnutrition, poverty, and increased gender-based violence have worsened inside Ukraine and around the world due to war-induced price hikes and shortages.

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