Why International Women’s Day still matters

Why International Women’s Day still matters

Jenny Snell, the CEO of The Young Women’s Movement
By: Jenni Snell CEO
Published on:
  • Heritage
  • Leadership
  • Rights

In this article, originally written for The Herald for International Women’s Day 2024, our CEO Jenni Snell explores International Women’s Day and its role in the fight for gender equality.

International Women’s Day is rooted in the radical call for women’s rights, finding its feet at the turn of the 20th century and celebrated from New York to St Petersburg. Since officially commemorating the day in 1975, we’ve entrusted the UN with broadening its international reach and setting an annual theme for the continual drive towards intersectional gender equality. Though, recent years have been different.

With great intention, many will come together celebrating the 8th of March with love heart poses on social media and championing an important ‘inspire inclusion’ theme. But we must ask ourselves what International Women’s Day means when this year’s UN theme – ‘invest in women’ – is increasingly being overshadowed by alternative campaigns.

As the CEO of The Young Women’s Movement, a charity this year celebrating its 100th anniversary, I have been reflecting on the journey women’s rights have been on over the past century, and the role that International Women’s Day has held and will hold for the future fight for gender equality.

While International Women’s Day can often feel co-opted by corporate marketing campaigns and performative actions, it’s crucial to revisit the original radical ethos of the day. The origins of International Women’s Day can be traced back to 1908, when New York’s women took to the streets marching for better working hours and pay. It was officially coined by an international conference of women and first adopted in 1911, before settling on the 8th  of March in unity with Russian women who secured their right to vote following demonstrations. The day was borne in the spirit of collaboration and achieving actionable, radical change towards gender equality,

Now in 2024, in what feels like the antithesis of collaborative feminist principles, we have two competing themes for International Women’s Day. Given the shocking statistic that only 1.8% of grants in the UK are awarded to women and girls’ charities (Rosa UK’s Mapping the UK Women and Girls Sector and its Funding report), the UN’s theme ‘Invest in Women’ is a strong, tangible and urgently needed ask. However, the theme that will be prevalent on social media timelines across the country is ‘Inspire Inclusion’.

Inclusivity, with a specific focus on diversity in leadership, is also an incredibly important and timely topic to consider, especially given the lack of women in key leadership roles across Scotland’s work sectors (Engender, Sex and Power Report, 2023) and what that means for women’s voices in positions of power and influencing. Yet the heartfelt shiny selfie poses and marketing materials feel tokenistic. The passive ‘inspire’ language just doesn’t have the actionable bite of the UN’s calls to ‘invest’. It’s no surprise that the theme which takes precedence is the one that is easier to make a one-off statement about and then do nothing with for the rest of the year. The focus often becomes about spotlighting the successes of individuals, and distracts from intentional and meaningful dialogue on re-thinking and re-imagining structures and systems in society that prevent gender equality. And, that’s to say nothing about the equal importance of elevating the diversity of intersectional feminism – tackling the range of issues affecting women of all backgrounds, instead of a sole focus on including women into what is seen as ‘normal’.

At The Young Women’s Movement, previously YWCA Scotland, we have been working for 100 years on advancing and protecting the rights of young women and girls. Our new strategy, ‘Re-imagining Scotland for Young Women and Girls’, is leading us into a new phase of our vision – a Scotland where young women are meaningfully heard, valued and supported to collectively lead transformational change in public policy and social infrastructures. Young women and girls are the experts in their own lives, and our work is shaped and led by their experiences and insights. We work to amplify their voices and to shift the balance of power in decision-making spaces. Our work ranges from first introductions to gender inequality and how to identify it, supporting young women and girls to engage with local democracy and campaign on issues that affect them, through to delivering national research on the rights of young women and girls and influencing policy.

In a world that is shifting at an exponentially fast rate, young women in Scotland are facing significant challenges: the cost-of-living crisis; the climate crisis; a rise in misogynistic rhetoric; rapid digitalisation; housing shortages. Our most recent Status of Young Women in Scotland report found that young women are being let down by healthcare services – fewer than 30% had mostly good experiences. Globally, the impact of violence and conflict are resulting in disproportionate violations of women’s rights in many countries, including Palestine, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now, more than ever, we need shared worldwide moments like International Women’s Day to draw attention and awareness to the pressing and urgent action required to achieve gender equality.

For us, International Women’s Day is an opportunity to raise awareness of young women’s rights and bring them to the forefront of discussions. We can reach and engage a wider audience and call for crucial funding to women’s organisations to advance our work and support women directly where it’s needed most.  

International Women’s Day is not just a date on the calendar – it’s a rallying call to roll up our sleeves in the ongoing struggle for gender equality. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the hard work that has been taking place 365 days a year, for over 100 years. By reclaiming its radical origins and centring the voices of women, especially those who are most at risk from systemic discrimination, we can collectively harness the power of the day to effect long-lasting change in our communities, society and beyond.

It’s time to seize International Women’s Day as a time for real commitment and action as it was intended. This 8th March, invest in women by donating to women’s organisations, funding much needed research into the experiences of women and lobbying for stronger gender budgeting across public spending.  

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