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This past year, we have seen countless examples of courageous women who defied the status quo and stood up to oppression. In the protests of the Arab Spring, women played a crucial role in revolutions that have deposed four dictators. Seeking freer, fairer governments, they risked their lives to lead protests, join the fighting on the frontlines, and care for the wounded without access to hospitals. For the first time last year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women — President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen — in honor of their inspiring work to end to violence in their countries.
For me, International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the important accomplishments and contributions of women such as these. This is a day to pause and remember how far we have come since the first International Women’s Day 101 years ago, when women had the right to vote in only two countries and many faced restricted education and career opportunities. This is also a day to remember how far we still have to go.
In countries like Afghanistan, women have gained so much in a short time, but still face many struggles that lie ahead. Within the past decade, Afghan women have seen incredible improvements in education and health care. Women’s life expectancy has increased by nearly two decades. Women can vote and now hold 27% of the parliamentary seats. These changes are due in no small part to the courageous work of women willing to put their safety at risk to speak out for women’s rights. However, women still face serious daily challenges, and sadly, 87% still experience physical violence in their lifetime. Equality is still a long way off.
Since 2002, Women for Women International (WfWI) has worked with over 33,000 Afghan women and provided them the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to earn an income, claim their rights, and make lasting change in their lives. Many of the women we serve have struggled with poverty and abuse; they’ve grown up without being able to attend school, never believing they are equal to their brothers. Through our program, women learn they have rights and that they are equal to men, and when they do, they stop accepting the status quo. Nearly 60% of the women we serve have found the strength to take action to end violence against them. Signs of progress like this are encouraging, but I know it will take the courage of many more women and men for lasting change to be possible.
International Women’s Day has a very real meaning. For women everywhere in the world who continue to face discrimination from those in power, who are the victims of violence, and who are taught by society from the day they are born that they are inferior to others, it is a reminder that they matter. That their voices are important. That they have the right to be heard, despite what their governments, society, or families tell them.
More than anything, International Women’s Day is a call to sisterhood, to stand with those still fighting for their rights. Here in the United States, the long struggle for equality is not the work of one woman. It takes the support of many women, each contributing in her own way, to move our collective forward. This is true for women everywhere. Each of the women WfWI serves in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo relies on the support of a “sister” in another country, someone she has never met but who is there for her as she learns about her rights and develops the skills to be able to rely on herself. When women join together with a common goal, they are able to bring changes to their communities that would have been nearly impossible for one woman to do alone.
That’s what sisterhood truly means, coming together to support each other through the hard times and working together to make life better for each other and for our children. At Women for Women International, we believe that one woman can change many things, but many women together can change everything. Women around the world continue to struggle for equality, in education, health care, economic opportunities, and political participation. It’s going to take a sisterhood of women coming together, across borders and divides, to ensure those who are standing up for their rights and equality succeed. When they do, they will not only have made life better for women, but for everyone.
In the upcoming year, I hope that women will continue to make progress on the goals we have all been working towards for the past century. But most importantly, I hope women everywhere will join together in a sisterhood of support for the women who still have the longest fight ahead of them. When all women are free to pursue their dreams and not held back by discriminatory laws or societal norms, then International Women’s Day will truly be something to celebrate.
by Andree Simon
President and COO, Women for Women International