International Women’s Day: Protests urge social reform, equal pay

In the US, women advocate for labor rights, education equality and sexual abuse legislation

Protesters march from the United Nations Friday in an annual march to end violence against women in honor of International Women's Day.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

A mosaic of issues spurred women across the globe to mobilize on Saturday to mark International Women’s Day. Equal pay in the workplace, an end to sexual abuse and education for all took precedence, but topics and demands ranged far beyond, as evidenced by a plethora of events in 150 cities across the U.S. alone. Alongside the main themes of the day, a nudity-ban protest in San Francisco will jockey for attention. In Denver, a speech by pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem, who emerged as a leader of the U.S. women’s movement in the 1960s, is likely to draw attention.

But across the world, women were united in the march for equality between the sexes. And fair pay at work was a common theme across nations.

In Albuquerque, N.M., advocates revived a longstanding debate between one of the U.S.’s largest employers of women and a workforce that is perceived to be underpaid and underprivileged. The local March 8th Women’s Committee organized a panel "Taking on Walmart," that advocates for equal pay and what they said are discriminatory practices at the retail giant.

Women make up more than 55 percent of the stores' hourly workforce, but only 30 percent of the corporation's managers are women. "Walmart is choosing to keep women in poverty, intentionally,” Eleanor Chavez, co-founder of the Committee, told Al Jazeera.

“I think that it’s a perfect example of the gender pay gap, in terms of how Walmart keeps wages low for women. They see women as a cheap source of labor in this country.”

Katie Cody, spokeswoman at Walmart told Al Jazeera the company adheres to a policy of equal pay and also runs a women's empowerment program.

"Walmart has a long history of providing advancement opportunities for our female associates," she wrote in an email. Walmart's women’s initiative is taking steps to increase sourcing from women-owned businesses, as well as implement a program to train 60,000 women in 150 factories and processing facilities, she added. A quarter of the company's board is female, compared to an average of 15 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

Janet Lucero, union representative at the state’s United Food and Commercial Workers union, who spoke at the panel about the plight of the workers, said International Women’s Day served as a means to keep the protest alive, which gained momentum at the picketing demonstration on Black Friday last year at the Carlisle supercenter where dozens of workers walked off their jobs.

Lucero, a retail worker herself for many years who doesn’t shop at Walmart “out of principle,” said that her duties as a former single parent used to weigh on her workload tremendously. Juggling several jobs with childcare if often more of a concern for women than men, she said.

“A man doesn’t have the same priorities as the women. I worked three jobs before I had my daughter, and then you get kids and you can’t take that time to work anymore.”

The Walmart workers demand better working conditions and a fair wage. “The wage that allows them to take care of their family,” Chavez added, who, in pledged solidarity with women workers around the world, connected the issue with factory workers’ struggle in Bangladesh, where women toil in sweatshops to supply retailers such as Walmart with cheap goods and cheap salaries.

In Sylhet, a major city in Bangladesh, women organized an event for International Women’s Day in support of homeworkers, the vast majority of whom are women, who often toil in what international labor advocates said are “inhuman conditions." The women demanded the ratification of the International Labor’s Organization’s Convention on Home Work, which gives them the rights, such as health care, maternity leave and a minimum working age.

Native American women

Equal labor conditions and pay was a uniting theme on International Women’s Day. But it was far from the only one.

In Greenwich, Conn., Maggie Dunne, an activist for Native American women’s rights, organized a gathering to celebrate Lakota women from the Pine Ridge Reservation, where poems and letters from students on female community members will be read in honor of International Women’s Day.

Around one in three Native American women suffer from sexual abuse, twice the national average, and in Alaska, where the abuse rates are highest, no legislation exists to protect them.

Melissa Rain Hernandez, a high school senior from Kyle, S.D., whose Lakota name is “Tehilapi Win,” which means “loved one,” honored Anna Mae Aquash, a former activist and member of the American Indian Movement who was murdered in 1975.

“A ghost of what you used to be. Traces that can be seen only when the dawn is purple and pink as your ethereal body follows the trail of broken treaties along state road 73,” Hernandez wrote in a reference to the laws that failed to protect her people.

The Violence Against Women Act in Indian country is another act that falls short of protecting native communities, Dunne told Al Jazeera. Sexual assault and rapes against Native women by non-natives often go without consequences because tribal governments do not have the authority to prosecute these crimes, and federal authorities lack resources, she said.

Alaska also has the highest rates of reported sexual assault against native women, but the act does not cover the state. “Many see VAWA as a huge step for Indian Country, and although it is better than no protection for Indian women, it is hardly a complete solution,” she wrote in an email.

STEM education

In Atlanta, Ga., Brenda Morant, a women's rights advocate, celebrated International Women’s Day by launching Girls Let’s Build, an educational program for 4-to-8-year-olds to improve their skills in science, technology, engineering and math.

Women receive fewer than 20 percent of bachelor degrees in science and engineering, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting women’s education in STEM. This number drops to 11 percent for female minorities.

“We’re not traditionally strong stakeholders in the field of technology. So one of our goals now is engaging women more,” Morant told Al Jazeera. “Technology and innovation is where we’re headed in this economy, adding women now are “the new emerging market,” as they acquire a scientific skill set in preparation for mass entry into fields that still are dominated by men.

In Rosemont, Ill., a panel of female IT leaders honored International Women’s Day by talking about their careers at technology giants in America. And in San Francisco, a hack and learn two-day event offered software development training and mentoring for women interested in computer science. In Miami, another panel of female scientists will discuss the various tribulations women face in a STEM career.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter