An equal world is an enabled world… So goes the introduction of this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, which aims to raise awareness of “collective individualism” – the idea that each of us has a larger impact than we realise on society through our conversations, behaviours, attitudes and choices.
The #EachforEqual initiative encourages us to challenge our stereotypes and biases. It also asks that we help to make our society a place where everyone – no matter who they are – enjoys the same rights, liberties and freedoms based purely on their worth as a human being.
Equality. We hear this word so often, and yet how many of us give consideration to its meaning? One definition of ‘equality’ is, “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.”
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While labels can be helpful, when they are used as a means to restrict others they not only serve to diminish the value of a person, but they also prevent them from fully expressing the talents and creativity that comes from the uniqueness of who they are. As a result, the suppression of the individual adds to the suffering of the collective.
International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day – celebrated on March 8 – started out in America in 1910 as an annual commemoration of working women. Since the 1960s, it has taken on a broader celebration of womanhood and women’s achievements. And of course, the day is also used to highlight the inequalities that still exist for women and others who continue to experience unnecessary restrictions and limitations that affect their lives, both privately and professionally.
Those who are reluctant to embrace equality often argue that not everyone can be equal (in outcome), which is true. It would be impossible for everyone’s lives to be positively equal in such terms; states where equality of outcome has been tried have usually been run by dictators, and people under dictatorships tend not to fare well.
But when we look at the definition of equality, it doesn’t include the word ‘outcome’. Instead, it talks about “status, rights, or opportunities.” Throughout history, women have struggled and fought hard to win the rights, opportunities, and statuses naturally enjoyed by men. Today, they continue that struggle.
Progress is always cause for celebration
Of course there has been a lot of progress fought for and won by women and other marginalised groups. In a speech to the New York Civil War Centennial Commission in 1962, Martin Luther King remarked:
We ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But thank God, we ain’t what we was.
As part of the decades-long civil rights movement, Dr. King, alongside his activists and allies, eventually pushed through the toughest struggles of inequality and set the wheels in motion for the kind of progress we see today that would have been unimaginable at that time.
The author Nelson Henderson wrote that the true meaning of life is “to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” In times of instant gratification and quick results, meaningful progress is often frustratingly slow, but the important thing is that we keep pushing forward, whatever the pace.
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International Women’s Day is a day of commemoration and celebration of all that women have achieved, but it also reminds us that the progress we want to see and the kind of world we want to build are born of our behaviours, attitudes and actions day-in and day-out.
To help people achieve equality, we all need to be mindful of the impact we make and ask:
“Am I treating everyone with respect regardless of their gender?”
“Where possible, am I doing what I can to help others to thrive, regardless of who they are?”
“Do I make an effort to help eradicate outdated attitudes and beliefs toward women and others, or am I helping to entrench those attitudes further?”
Ultimately, those of us who have enjoyed a relatively privileged life have, in my view, a moral obligation to help people in need of allies, to give a voice to those struggling to be heard, and to recognise that when life is comparatively free from obstacles, it’s easy to believe that inequality is just another buzzword rather than the needless reality lived by billions of people throughout the world.
The achievements of women and other groups are well-known, and their brilliance shines bright for all to see who are paying attention. All of this comes in the face of suppression, prejudice, rejection and bias, making each one of their success stories all the more impressive.
From Harriet Tubman and Indira Gandhi to Malaysia’s own Dr. Mazlan Othman and Heidy Quah, women have always shown what can be achieved when the strength of their intellect and their unyielding determination are given free and equal rein to flourish.
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In celebration of this year’s International Women’s Day, let’s be #EachforEqual and do what we can to support everyone in the workplace, our communities and in the wider society to enjoy equality of status, rights, and opportunities. Because when everybody matters, everyone wins.