Fight for women’s rights still has a long way to go
Females not so much discriminated against on much of the planet as hated and feared
Representatives of An Post and The National Women's Council of Ireland at a photocall in March 2011 to unveil the issuing of two stamps to mark International Women’s Day. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien
‘I love strong women,” was my friend’s final contribution to our chat about a woman we both admire. I agreed with her, and nearly added: “Probably because I was raised by one.” My mother, a person possessed of more wisdom and intelligence than anyone I’ve ever met, could have been anything she wanted to be, if only she’d been born into a different age. As it was, this diminutive, working-class woman spent the best years of her life in drudgery, raising 10 children. Her only escapes were books, and the church.
My mother’s strength, as I saw it, was in retaining her sanity, dignity and humour, and in not becoming embittered, in spite of the unfairness of her lot. But her situation was hardly unique for that time, in the so-called civilised world, when fairness didn’t apply to women. That’s how it was, and had always been.
Even the relatively few women who somehow managed to evade a life devoted to husband, babies, housework and cooking were faced with more glass ceilings to their advancement than would kit out an acre of greenhouses. We have come a long way since those days.
Last week, for instance, on International Women’s Day, one’s thoughts turned naturally outward, to the plight of women and girls in other parts of the world. On the evidence, it is hard not to conclude that females are not so much discriminated against across much of the planet as hated and feared. They are treated like an enemy within: as fifth columnists, to be hounded and subjugated, tortured and humiliated, or put to death on the flimsiest pretext.
It defies comprehension that in some countries rape is almost looked upon as a legitimate pastime for men, while the female victims are treated as criminals. And as such are open to being ostracised, compelled to marry their attacker, publicly flogged, or even hanged.
The so-called honour killing or facial disfigurement of a supposedly errant young girl by male members of her family is in many places as widely accepted as the thrashing of schoolchildren once was in Ireland and the UK.
It is common practice in many countries for young girls to be forced into marrying against their will (which is entirely different from a consensual arranged marriage). In November 2010, USAid estimated that about 52 million girls under 18 are married off every year by their families. Across the world annually, between 100 million and 140 million women and girls are subjected to genital mutilation; about 600,000 women die in childbirth for lack of the most basic medical care; many hundreds of thousands of girls and women are trafficked into slave labour or prostitution; and one in three girls are denied an education.