Source : The Guardian

Much has changed in the 100 years since one million women took to Europe’s streets for the first International Women’s Day (IWD) demanding the right to work, the vote and an end to discrimination.

But as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters echoed their spirit, joining rallies and celebrations across much of the globe to commemorate the centenary, one thing was clear: much still has to change.

How, asked Michelle Bachelet, the first executive director of UN Women, would those “courageous pioneers” view the world today? “I suspect … with a mixture of pride and disappointment,” she said in an address marking the anniversary.

Women from Nepal to the Philippines used IWD to draw attention to the challenges many of them continue to face.

More than 1,000 marched on Congress in Manila to urge support for a reproductive health bill, which seeks to improve access to information on contraception but faces strong opposition from influential Roman Catholic bishops. On an average day, 11 Filipino women die giving birth, according to the UN.

At a rally by the All Nepal Women’s Association (Revolutionary) in Kathmandu, women waved placards reading “End violence against women” and “Ensure equal pay for equal work”. Hundreds of those gathered had family members who disappeared during the Maoist insurgency in Nepal and were demanding to know their whereabouts. The rally’s coordinator, Jayapuri Gharti, reminded the crowd that the sacrifice by 2,500 women in the people’s war was to ensure equal rights for all Nepalese women.

In the UK, more than 400 events were held. They included a mass march across the Millennium Bridge, in London, led by the musician Annie Lennox, social activist Bianca Jagger and actor Cherie Lunghi, who released doves to highlight the plight of women in Afghanistan.

They were joined by Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst. “Women in Afghanistan are our modern-day suffragettes, standing up for their rights despite threats of violence,” said Pankhurst. Hetty Bower – aged 105 and herself a former suffragette – was guest of honour at a wreath-laying at Pankhurst’s statue in London, as women members of the parliamentary Labour party, plus Labour leader Ed Miliband were photographed with her. “She remembers the foundation of IWD 100 years ago,” Miliband marvelled.

Bachelet, the former Chilean president, chose to celebrate the day in Liberia with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female president in Africa. “The last century has seen an unprecedented expansion of women’s legal rights and entitlements,” Bachelet said. “The advancement of women’s rights can lay claim to be one of the most profound social revolutions the world has seen.

“But despite this progress over the last century, the hopes of equality expressed on that first International Women’s Day are a long way from being realised. Almost two out of three illiterate adults are women. Girls are still less likely to be in school than boys.

“Every 90 seconds of every day, a woman dies in pregnancy or due to childbirth-related complications.”

In Russia, and some other countries, IWD is a holiday and a cross between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, where men traditionally present yellow mimosas and chocolates to the women in their lives.

Their attachment stems from the official birth of IWD – it was then called International Working Women’s Day – as a socialist event, originating in Denmark but swiftly embraced by Austria, Germany, Switzerland, eastern Europe and Russia, where it was said to have been the first stage of the 1917 revolution. But in many areas today it has lost its political flavour. Tuesday’s celebrations included a Miss Russia beauty pageant.

In China, where it is also a holiday, female office workers engaged in staged pillow fights, while dozens of woman soldiers took park in a fashion show. Other events included a housewives’ talent show and a pancake-making competition.

In the US, Michelle Obama and secretary of state Hillary Clinton marked the day by presenting Women of Courage awards to those advocating women’s rights and empowerment, often at great personal risk.

In all more than 2,000 events around the world were planned, details of which are posted on the IWD’s website, which managed to survive three separate “denial of service” attacks throughout the day.

Women’s campaigner and Australian entrepreneur Glenda Stone, who founded the website, said: “A decade ago International Women’s Day was disappearing. Activity in Europe, where International Women’s Day actually began, was very low. Providing a global online platform helped sustain and accelerate momentum for this important day.”