What do Asian women in air hostess uniforms, James Bond actor Daniel Craig dressed in drag and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have in common? Before you get carried away with suggestions not fit for mass consumption, I'll tell you: International Women's Day. On this day, more than a hundred countries around world are commemorating the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a celebration which first gained popularity in Europe, Africa and Asia. Long out of favor in the U.S. for its association with the Socialist Party—the iteration of the holiday in Germany was once called a “socialist Valentine’s Day”—the celebration only gained traction (and an official calendar date) outside of the Soviet Bloc when the United Nations recognized the festivities on 8 March 1975. Now the widely observed occasion serves to celebrate the diverse economic, political, and social achievements of women the world over.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is throwing an impressive 4-day party for the occasion, The Huffington Post asks us to honor the oldest woman we know, and James Bond Daniel Craig dresses in drag in a must-see video with his co-star Dame Judi Dench to raise awareness about domestic violence. (If you were wondering about the air hostesses, in a brilliant public relations move, Air India has arranged for 13 flights in its network to be staffed by all-woman crew). And not to be outdone by the world figures stepping up to the plate around the world, the original patron of the global celebration, the United Nations, through its newly born agency UN Women, has pledged to promote:
"Equal access to education, training and science and technology: pathway to decent work for women."
This theme is a framework specific enough to be constructive, but open enough to be applied across different cultures. It highlights key elements in the promotion of women's rights over the years, and in the dynamic context of today's world, the novel pairing of and focus on “science and technology,” it begs our vigorous championship more than ever before.
These tools—science and technology—increase opportunities for education and training, and what's more, their use reduces the tendency to victimize those we are aiming to help, giving people the means they need to take charge of their own destiny. Leilah Janah, who created the idea of microwork, small jobs people in the developing world can complete through the Internet, understood this. My friend, Kosta Grammatis, who started a non-profit to bring free Internet to the world, understood this. William Kamkwamba, a young Malawian man whom I had the pleasure of meeting last week at Dartmouth College, definitely understood this. Using books from his local library, he and his community built a windmill from scratch to provide energy to his village. When Kamkwamba first used the Internet and millions of hits showed up on his search for windmill, he asked: "Where was this Google all this time?"
Now for every male Kamkwamba out there, how many female Kamkwambas are we—are their communities—missing out on?
A momentary lapse in realistic self-awareness is necessary here: science and technology do not have the power to end tragedies such as the violence and systematic rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Furthermore, as the eloquent scholar of the internet and society Evgeny Morozov would remind us, the viability of tools such as the internet, in creating significant political change depends greatly on political will, among other circumstances. Science and technology also include a host of necessary services—phone lines, electricity, transportation, etc.—which are lacking in too many places around the world. That being said, one only needs to look at the developments of the last few months to realize the impact that access to basic services we all too often take for granted can have on a population.
Western news outlets have devoted a great deal of coverage to the pivotal role of social media sites Twitter and Facebook in the ongoing democratic protests in the Middle East and North Africa. What is most interesting is how social media and other online tools have translated themselves into opportunities for political change. In this country, it helped to elect our first African-American president. In Egypt and Tunisia, not only were women able to reduce the usual threat to their physical security and join men in rallying for better governance, but they were able to contribute their own strengths and streamline the process as well.
Though it's important to remember that science and technology encompasses everything from electricity to Internet access to protection from HIV/AIDS to water pumps, and that there is no silver bullet for development or gender equality, the use of the phrase "science and technology" for women's rights in today's political climate lends itself to the discussion of women's use of Internet technology. It's no secret that women are natural socializers. Access to social media allows previously ignored activity to gain more representation and more influence online. The women of Tunisia and Egypt were "front and centre, in news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the leadership," according to a recent Al-Jazeera news article on on the Middle East feminist revolution.
The 2011 theme’s insistence on providing women equal access to technology comes as technology's ability to shrink the gap between ordinary people and the political process extension increases. This will allow more women to contribute more to political and social projects, and gives me hope that all over the world, Secretary Clinton’s call will be met with action:
"We must recommit ourselves to the cause of empowering our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and friends, and ensuring that in every country, every region and in every continent we speak with clarity that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights." Happy International Women’s Day!