In 1910, a lady, Clara Zetken, during the second international conference of working women in Copenhagen suggested that what was previously called Woman’s Day become International Women’s Day.
In 1911, the first international Women’s Day was celebrated in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland by more than one million men and women in rallies that campaigned for women's rights to work, vote, to hold public office and end discrimination.
More than a century later, it is necessary to ask whether the situation has improved, or if the world is still grappling with the same issues as far as women’s rights are concerned.
Between 1910 and today, women have gotten the right to vote and hold public office in most countries. Saudi Arabia recently allowed women to start driving – a step that seemed far-fetched only a few years ago. FGM and early marriage is on the decline, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Legal discrimination against women is also on the decline.
However, it will be difficult to say that gender equality has been achieved when out of a total of 195 countries, only six have equal rights for men and women. According to a World Bank report, only France, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Latvia accord men and women equal rights under the law; and even then, there still is a challenge in implementation.
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Last year alone, 106 women in Kenya were killed due to gender-based violence, compared to 42 men. Women are reportedly paid Sh68 to a man’s Sh100 in Kenya, and also account for a majority of the unpaid work done in the country. Even though constitutionally mandated, the country has fallen short of the two-thirds gender rule in the executive and legislature.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme, “each for equal”, called for everyone’s participation in the journey for gender equality. It called for empowerment to be taught, understood and implemented across gender, age, race, and religion.
Individuals need to join the struggle by treating people as equals and allow them the same opportunities. Teachers, for instance, need to put just as much emphasis on girls joining STEM fields as they do on boys. Parents need to ensure that both boys and girls contribute to the housework.
Private for-profit companies, where the discrepancy in representation can best be seen, need to work to ensure inclusivity in their leadership. According to Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, only 16.9 per cent of all corporate board members in the world are women.
In Kenya the situation isn’t any better. Of 62 companies listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange, only 4 have female CEOs and only 3 have women chairing their boards. This figure is still lower than the African average where 13 per cent of total board positions are held by women.
Corporates need to initiate programmes that reach out to women who have been systematically left out of the loop. Setting diversity goals and being transparent about the progress towards those goals is a good place to start.
Not only is equality the right thing to do, it is also good for business. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with more diversity in their teams did 19 per cent better on their bottom line. Another study shows that net revenue increases by 15 per cent in companies whose senior management is 30 per cent female.
Rendeavour, Africa’s leading urban developer, started RenWoman, an initiative that seeks to help the women working for the company build strong professional networks that will lead to more women joining the real estate business. The networks formed then lead to mentorship that will allow the women who are already in senior leadership create pathways for high-potential female employees to increase their presence at the helm.
If other companies adopt similar practices and programmes, then perhaps we can increase representation of women in the corporate boardrooms from the current global average.
This, however, has to start at the policy level where companies decide what their values are. Having competitive maternity and paternity leave policies, enforcing equal pay for similar work, and allowing flexible schedules are just some of the ways that companies can attract female employees.
There is something that everyone can do to help realise gender equality. Individuals, schools, private corporations, and governments all have a role to play in this fight. The 2020 International Women’s Day is one where we not only celebrated the progress that has been made so far, but also individually consider our actions and whether they are helping achieve global gender equality.
The author is the Head of Legal at Tatu City.