International Women’s Day is as urgent as ever if we know the facts

This year’s slogan for International Women’s Day couldn’t be more apt. While there is a growing contingent that believes gender equality has already been achieved, the #choosetochallenge rallying cry asks us to question our complacency.

This year, marches to mark the day will be few and far between due to the pandemic. However, the need for awareness is greater than ever; while the Covid-19 disease itself may actually have hit men harder than women, the fallout has done much to curtail opportunity for women and girls across the world.

According to the World Bank, when schools were closed, violence against girls increased and adolescent pregnancies multiplied: “Available research shows that prevalence of violence against girls and women has increased during the pandemic – jeopardizing their health, safety and overall well-being,” says a report published in September 2020 by the institution.

The pandemic has also undermined girls’ education disproportionately for other reasons. “As girls stay at home because of school closures, their household work burdens might increase, resulting in girls spending more time helping out at home instead of studying,” states the report.

It is well established that girls’ results are regularly outstripping those of boys in schools in the West, exploding the myth that women’s intellectual capacity is inferior to that of their male counterparts. Yet women almost everywhere continue to be paid less than men for the doing the same job, despite the fact that, as US politician Hillary Clinton points out, “When you go to the store, you don’t get a women’s discount. You have to pay the same as everybody else.”

The International Women’s Day assembly prepared by King’s College Madrid’s Head of Wellbeing and Director of Boarding, Hanan Nazha, emphasises that this is an issue that all students need to consider: “As young people, you need to understand that the gender wage gap is everyone’s problem. It is not a woman problem. It is your parents’ problem and it will become yours too when you enter the workforce. In fact, as your parents are dealing with this already, it impacts you already.”

When it comes to the assumption that we are all more or less equal nowadays, Harry Potter actress and the UN’s ambassador for its HeForShe campaign, Emma Watson begs to differ and invites us to do the same by carrying out a #FromWhereIStand survey.

Emma points out that having female role models in all walks of life will help to achieve gender equality, but says: “It’s easy to assume that this is already happening in many parts of the world, but is it really? How often to do we stop and really think about the balance of men and women making decisions and doing the jobs that most influence our lives?”

As she says, the only way to create change is to know the facts and establish the departure point.

As far as politics is concerned, “Women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 22 countries out of 195, and 119 countries have never had a woman leader,” according to the United Nations which adds that at the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.

The International Women’s Day assembly for King’s College Alicante, prepared by Assistant Head of Primary, Vanessa Hughes highlights the fact that women in the UK didn’t even get the right to vote until 1918 and that was only for those over the age of 30. In Spain, women were barred from the process until 1933.

As Vanessa says, International Women’s Day has been helping to bring about change since it was established in 2011. But while the gender gap has been gradually narrowing in the West, progress has been agonisingly slow in many other parts of the world.

According to the 2019 Women, Peace and Security Index, which covers inclusion, security and justice, the best country for women to live in prior to the pandemic, was Norway, followed by Switzerland, Finland and Denmark, with the UK coming in 7th and Spain 15th; Yemen came last, followed by Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan.

A more recent survey carried out by the Business Insider ranks Spain 17th, with a poor record for income equality (a gap of 22%, according to the Spanish government) and the UK ranks 13th, also scoring badly on equal pay (a gap of 15.9%, according to the UK government).

What is clear is that deep-rooted perceptions of what women are capable of and entitled to need to shift if gender equality goals are to be reached. In the assembly given at King’s College Alicante, a video shows UK-based children being asked to draw pictures of a surgeon, a fire fighter and an RAF pilot. Almost all draw men in the roles. The children then meet three women who work these jobs. When they introduce themselves, the children assume they are dressing up!

Among the King’s children, the reaction was quite different. When the children were asked to draw a surgeon, a fire fighter and an RAF pilot at King’s College Madrid (Soto), the Head of Primary, Paula Parkinson, says, “We were very pleasantly surprised to see that, in fact, the children had drawn an equal representation of both males and females in their drawings representing professions that might in the past have been seen as typically male. We were delighted to see that the input that we have given in our school to the themes of equality and promoting inspirational and successful women is starting to have an impact on our young pupils.”

As Acting Head of the Primary department at King’s College Alicante, Sharmila Gandhi, says, “We believe that it is important to challenge stereotypes in our daily lives and ensure that children value the role that women play in different walks of life.”

It is also important to clarify that International Women’s Day is not about getting the better of men and putting them down; it is about redressing the balance and “challenging the most fundamental structures of our society,” as author, Helen Lewis, puts it.

We need to celebrate the women who have won us the rights we now have and those whose achievements show us we can break stereotypes and glass ceilings, but we also need to be courageous, #choosingtochallenge a status quo that is unjust.

As Gloria Steinem, journalist and activist once explained “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist, nor to any one organization, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”

Or as one Primary student at King’s College Madrid (Soto) puts it, “It’s so important for us to celebrate International Women’s Day because in the past women haven’t always been recognised for the great work they have done.”