And so to the House of Commons, to celebrate International Women’s Day with the Plan team, assorted MPs, the Royal African Society and Plan’s supporters.
On the way there, I read the Mirror’s IWD supplement, guest edited by Sarah Brown; on the way home, I saw that President Obama had also celebrated IWD at the White House; both huge, mainstream improvements on the way in which IWD is now globally recognised and acknowledged.
Chaired by Labour MP Sally Keeble, the event was about celebrating IWD, discussing women’s issues in Africa and highlighting the impact of women on economic empowerment. I sat at the back of the room and scribbled, so saw a lot of backs rather than the speakers and their associated slides – but here’s what I heard …
Plan CEO Marie Staunton (a really fabulous speaker and such an impassioned advocate for girls and women) opened up the debate with the statement that “Girls are invisible” – their work is unseen, taken for granted, doesn’t count, doesn’t contribute to GDP – and yet where would many societies be without it? And, in a recession, girls suffer more than boys: they are more likely to be pulled out of school early in order to contribute to the family income, with all the future repercussions of that (outlined here, at the launch of Plan’s “Because I am a Girl” book in January).
But, continued Marie, each year of completed primary school adds an additional 10% onto an adult girl’s future earnings; and girls who go on to complete a full ten years’ worth of education are more likely to have smaller families and break the cycle of poverty. Plan are tracking 142 girls in 9 countries and these preliminary findings add a huge amount of value to their work overseas, as do insights such as learning that girls who are menstruating and have no sanitary protection can’t go to school – so something as relatively simple as providing them with sanitary towels can have a massive impact on their capacity to gain an education, recognise their rights, gain a voice and empower their communities.
A speaker (I unfortunately missed her name – Tipi …?) from Comic Relief told us that the charity has a specific programme funding women and girls, and that their research has shown that, “when women and girls prosper, communities thrive.”
Focussing on education, anti-violence campaigns and women’s issues (such as programmes which emphasise the benefits of later marriage) all support the wider community in countries all over Africa and elsewhere.
Finally, we were joined by two amazing girls from a Walthamstow secondary school – Rhiannon and Ronan. They had won an essay competition and had, as their prize, spent the recent half-term holiday with Plan in Ghana, helping to raise awareness of the issues which affect girls’ education. These two 15 years old blew me away – so confident, self-assured, witty, compassionate. It’s no small thing to stand up in front of a room full of “grown ups” and talk about your recent trip – and yet they did, and were amazing.
“Boys are prioritised in Ghana”, they announced.
“Girls are expected to help at home rather than go to school.”
As honoured guests of a high school near Accra, our girls presented the prizes on school sports day – which, as they told us to laughter and applause, also consisted of handing over boxes of “Always” to the winning girls’ teams.
(“What are ‘always’?” – asked the man standing next to me … and then rather looked as if he hadn’t when he received the hissed answer of “Sanitary towels!”).
I loved these girls; as a member of the Plan team said to me afterwards: “Young voices are so important – not only do they talk sense but they capture an audience …”
Anyway, R & R were accompanied by a Guardian journalist; read more about their adventures here.
Elswhere, I’ve had a couple of comments made to me as to the “need” to have an International Women’s Day in 2010; to those people, I’d refer you to the just-released World Economic Forum’s annual Corporate Gender Gap report, which shows that, even in countries such as the US, where awareness and resources are far higher, the numbers of women in the workforce at all are not, actually, that high – and as for India?
(My use of bold)
Taken from the press release , we can see that:
The United States (52%), Spain (48%), Canada (46%) and Finland (44%) have the highest percentage of women employees at all levels among the responding companies. India is the country with the lowest percentage of women employees (23%), followed by Japan (24%), Turkey (26%) and Austria (29%). At the industry level, the findings of the survey confirm that the services sector employs the greatest percentage of women employees. Within this sector, the financial services and insurance (60%), professional services (56%) and media and entertainment (42%) industries employ the greatest percentage of women. The sectors that display the lowest percentage of women in the 20 economies are automotive (18%), mining (18%) and agriculture (21%).
Female employees tend to be concentrated in entry or middle level positions and remain scarce in senior management or board positions in most countries and industries. A major exception to this trend is Norway, where the percentage of women among boards of directors is above 40% for the majority of respondents. This is due to a government regulation that mandates a minimum of 40% of each gender on the boards of public companies.
The average for women holding the CEO-level position was a little less than 5% among the 600 companies surveyed. Finland (13%), Norway (12%), Turkey (12%), Italy (11%) and Brazil (11%) have the highest percentage of women CEOs in this sample.
But, in Norway, where there’s been a mandated quota system for a couple of years now, we see a more marked shift, which leaves me wondering why so many countries (and companies) run scared of interventions such as quotas and targets. There’s more on this in a political context on my friend Lee Chalmers’ excellent blog. And Lee also links to and comments on the recent Economist article on gendercide … read this and then make the case that we no longer have a need for International Women’s Day, OK?