Women's Long and Winding Road to Equality

International Women's Day highlights importance of investing in women.

March 14, 2011 -- 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.

Women in Africa receive less than 10 percent of all investment credit going to small farmers and only 1 percent of the total credit for the agricultural sector, said Helen Clark, the U.N. Development Project Administrator in prepared remarks to the 2011 U.N. forum for Investing in Women and Entrepreneurship.

"Culturally in most countries people are not willing to accept that women deserve equal right to men," said Janet Walsh, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Women's Rights Division. "Women are systematically excluded from power and especially from political representation and the ability to make autonomous decisions for themselves."

According to a McKinsey and Company report, women account for 60 percent of the working poor earning less than US $1 a day. Women are also more likely to than men to work in the lowest paid informal or non-standard wage employment.

Rosario Perez, CEO of Pro Mujer, says that investing in women "has a huge impact not only in the country but also when women make money, they tend to invest 70 percent into their families, which goes in terms of health, education, and of course food, whereas men it's only 30 percent." Pro Mujer is an international women's development and microfinance organization which seeks to give small loans specifically to women.

"Women tend to be better at managing money and investing in the next generation. It's a multiplier effect for the greater country. Women think longer term," said Perez referring to reports by the World Bank and United Nations.

"When women have their own way of making money, economic empowerment, that actually raises self confidence and their self esteem. Women and political stability really has to do with social stability," Perez said. "When women work, it raises the income of the overall country. The more women in the workforce you have, the more income per capita the country raises."

"Women's economic empowerment is central to gender equality. Supporting women to start their own businesses, or expand existing ones, empowers them, reduces inequality, and stimulates economic growth," said Helen Clark administrator of UN Development Programme.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated the centennial of International Women's Day in Washington, D.C. by honoring women from ten countries who have worked to combat gender-based violence and discrimination.

"While we've made some important strides, all of you in this room know better than anyone else that this work is far from finished," she said. "We have so, so much more to do."

Despite huge advances in the past 50 years, American women's wages are still significantly lower than men's. For every dollar a man makes, a woman earns only 77 cents. An Institute for Women's Policy Research study shows it will take 45 more years to close the gender wage gap.

"Women's lower earnings relative to men mean that their families have lower incomes than if there were no wage gap," said Jeffrey Hayes, a senior research associate at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Women have less money to save for the future, and their Social Security will reflect their lower earnings after they retire."