Women's Long and Winding Road to Equality

VIDEO: Courageous Women are honored on the 100th International Womens Day.
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Most of the demonstrations associated with the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day celebrated the huge advances women have made throughout the past century. In the United States alone, women gained the right to vote, joined men in the workplace, and closed the education gender gap.

But in many parts of the world, the centennial celebrations highlighted the struggle still raging to elevate women beyond the status of second-class citizens. Marches in Egypt and Ivory Coast, for example, were met with counter-protests, insults and violence.

"It's important every year for there to be a day that marks women's power and positive aims for women," said Janet Walsch, deputy director for Human Rights Watch's Women's Rights Division. "The harassment at the protests highlighted the problems that women face every day."

In Egypt, women's rights activist Nehad Abo Alomsan planned for a "Million Woman" march in Tahrir Square to remind Egyptians of the instrumental role women played during the January revolution. Only several hundred women showed up, and they were soon met with mobs of male counter-protesters, telling them to "go home, that's where you belong."

"We just want to draw the attention of the decision makers and appeal to the women that if they keep silent now then they will lose everything. Women stood shoulder to shoulder by the men, but post-revolution when it came to the decision-making process they were excluded," Alomsan told Al Jazeera during Tuesday's march.

The Egyptian constitution guarantees women equal rights, but that does not insure equality for women.

"On paper things look really good but in most societies in the world the law is only a starting point," said Samer Ali, an associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin .

Egyptian society defines women's roles as subversive to men. Women have higher rates of illiteracy, 62 percent compared to 38 percent for males, despite laws providing for equal education.

The legal environment in Egypt makes it virtually impossible for women to prosecute abusers and fight inequalities. A National Council for Women study in 2009 found that 62.2 percent of women suffer from domestic violence. Sexual harassment outside the home is also prevalent with 98 percent of foreign women traveling to Egypt and 88 percent of Egyptian women reporting being harassed on the street in a 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.

"A free, democratic Egypt will be much, much better for women because men will have other ways of taking out their frustration than subjugating women," Ali said.

Across the continent, a women's march in Ivory Coast turned bloody when President Laurent Gbagbo's army shot and killed four protesters. The women were marching to support Gbagbo's opponent Alassane Ouattara who is recognized by the international community as the winner of last November's election.

The demonstration took place on the same blood-stained street where at least six women were killed by Gbagbo's army earlier in the week. Nearly 400 have died in the post-electoral violence that threatens to plunge the small African nation into civil war, according to the United Nations.

President Obama issued a written statement Wednesday to "strongly condemn the abhorrent violence against unarmed civilians" in Ivory Coast.

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