‘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.
In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 60 per cent of all people living with HIV are female. In some countries, HIV is three to six times more prevalent among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 than among boys from the same age group. It will take more than an annual nod in the direction of women's rights to change how the world treats almost half of its population.
In even relatively enlightened countries, it is usual to see men sitting under trees or outside cafes, smoking and chatting, while the women pound grain, toil in the fields, and carry the household water requirements from miles distant – as well as look after the children and the home, of course. Travelling in the developing world, it has often struck me that many women are only slightly better off than that poor (invariably overladen and overworked) creature the donkey.
There is no doubt, considering our past treatment of women and girls, that we in the developed world have come a long way in a relatively short time. Nor, in fairness, whatever the extent of our previous discriminatory practices, did we ever come close to plumbing the depths of misogyny outlined above.
However, that we stand favourable comparison with others where the rights of women are concerned is no excuse for complacency or smugness on our part. If the objective is genuine equality, and it must be, then we still have a way to go. Only last year, writing in thejournal.ie, Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor drew attention to an EU study that showed women are routinely discriminated against in the Irish workplace. On average, Irish women earn 17 per cent less than their male counterparts, and are seriously under-represented at the most senior levels of private companies and in the civil service.
The situation is just as bad in the UK. A 2010 report by Lord Davies of Abersoch revealed that women made up only 12.5 per cent of directors in the FTSE top 100 companies. There may not be as many glass ceilings as in my mother's day, but she probably would still have needed to be born into a different time than now to be allowed an equal chance to fulfil her potential.