WEDNESDAY March 8 saw millions of women around the world from Alaska to Zambia celebrate International Women's Day. The first women's rights mass meeting was held in 1908. Since then March 8 has been recognised as the official global day to honour the achievements of women past and present.
All over the world, women earn 20 to 50 per cent less than men and in every country unemployment is higher for women than men. Global statistics show that women are more likely to be victims of poor safety standards at work, yet are least likely to file complaints or take time off.
Dr Glenda Stone, CEO of global women's organisation Aurora who provides the worldwide register of IWD events at http://www.internationalwomensday.com said, "Women's equality has come a long way but the world should not become complacent. Many companies and countries still treat women unfairly. Thankfully worldwide interest in International Women's Day is increasing annually, not declining, and this indicates that women are not giving up on the fight for equality."
But it is not only women's groups around the world who take the day seriously. Major corporations, governments and educational institutions also celebrate the day.
Sue Jex, HSBC's Group Head of Diversity said, "Employee diversity is critical for corporate success. At HSBC, being the world's local bank means getting this absolutely right so that we successfully reflect and understand our local customer base. International Women's Day provides HSBC with an excellent opportunity to globally support a wide range of women's activity at the local level."
Meanwhile, an AP report from the United Nations, More than 240 women from over 50 countries accused Secretary-General Kofi Annan of paying lip service to gender equality but failing to take action to promote women and women's rights.
In an open letter to Annan, the women said on Monday they were "disappointed and frankly outraged" that strengthening the UN machinery focusing on women is not a central part of the UN's reform agenda. They also expressed deep concern "that the position of women in high-level UN posts has stagnated."
At a news conference to highlight the letter, Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership, said: "We are really disappointed that once more we have to be here asking, 'Where are the women? Where's the money? Where's the commitment in concrete terms?"'
"Although we've had a lot of rhetorical commitment to women's rights, it still hasn't made it on to the big agenda of UN reform," she lamented.
At the 1995 UN women's conference in Beijing, and at the 10-year review last year, commitments were made by the United Nations and governments to achieve equality of the sexes.
"If we're really going to say that women's equality is at the centre of the 21st century" and that this is an issue the UN has advanced in its 60-year history, Bunch said, "then it's time to have a new look at UN reform from the eyes of women."
The women who signed the letter are attending the 50th session of the Commission on the Status of Women and come from over 70 organisations. They urged Annan in his address to the commission on Wednesday, which is International Women's Day, "to announce concrete proposals for advancing gender equality" and strengthening the UN bodies that work for women's rights.
June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organisation, said women attending the commission's two-week meeting "are demanding that in ... this critical time of UN reform, that women be seated at every decision-making table in these discussions and that the women's equality agenda be addressed."
The letter noted that a high-level panel appointed recently to study how the UN system deals with development, humanitarian assistance and the environment has only three women out of 15 members.
This week, the UN announced an all-male short list for the new executive director of the UN Environment Program despite a campaign by women's groups to appoint a woman, Zeitlin said, singling out Norway's former development and aid minister Hilde Johnson as very well qualified.
"This disparity between men and women at the UN is getting worse and we're really at an all-time low," she said. "In 2006, this is just unacceptable in an institution that's committed to gender equality and women's participation in decision-making."
Perhaps the problem is best exemplified by last Friday's appointment of Annan's chief of staff Mark Malloch Brown to replace Louise Frechette as deputy secretary-general when she steps down on March 31, Zeitlin said.
Pawadee Tonguthai, head of Asia Pacific Women's Watch who spoke on behalf of women in the region, said they protest "the fact that the UN hasn't been acting as a role model for governments in terms of putting more women in decision-making roles or taking care of this equal participation by women."
"If you don't have the UN as a role model," she said, "the government itself will also go backward."