International Women’s Day: A day of celebration or mourning?

Have you ever asked yourselves why we do celebrate Women’s Day every year? Yes, yes, I know… International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8 every year in almost all the countries around the world, marking that women gained right to vote in Russia in 1917 after which March 8 officially became a national holiday. Historically first, attempts for a “special day for women” were observed as protests organized in 1910-1911, in Western countries such as Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million attended rallies calling for the rights of women to work, vote and so on. In the U.S., it was even earlier. The first U.S. Women’s Day was held in 1909.  Finally, the U.N. officially recognized March 8 as IWD in 1977, and it became a global celebration day.

But personally, as a woman, I don’t like celebrating it as it has turned into something else. It looks like IWD is not about the women’s fight they give for equality, freedom and rights anymore. The day has become something like Valentine’s Day or New Year celebrations in modern countries. Please don’t get me wrong, but many men becoming sneaky by sending roses to women on March 8, and then, they go back to their lazy mood for the next 364 days and don’t care about the rights of women in daily life at all.

It was once a day where we promised to commit ourselves to increase our efforts to achieve equal access to employment, education, politics, social equality and other opportunities, not only for ourselves but also for women elsewhere all around the world. It was a day to remember the brave and determined women who played an extraordinary role in history, including world war periods, no matter what kind of troubles they came across and paved the way for us to carry the flag to the future.

However, recently I think that we are retrogressing even though there are still a lot of things waiting for us to do. And I am not even talking about sex discrimination in offices where women are still paid lower than men who do the same job, sexual abuse in reality or online and so on. The increasing number of women who are under risk of violence, torture, rape and death is on the headlines in the recent years, revealing that there is nothing to celebrate but mourn.

Furthermore, unfortunately, while we still talk about all the gender-based violence in the modern world, we almost forget the other women who are under greater risk and threat in conflict zones. That makes the problem not only about women; all of us are responsible for them as what they have been through are mostly “crimes against humanity”. If we don’t fight for their rights just like the women who made history, then how can we expect a safer world, especially for our children?

While domestic violence for women is a major problem all over the world, violation of women’s human rights, the number of women who need help in conflict zones such as Syria and Yemen as well as the women held in concentration camps in China, or even in countries which looks normal, are increasing every day, according to reports.

According to surveys, India is the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman because of the high risk of sexual violence, including gang rape and slave labor. They are also faced with acid attacks, female genital mutilation, child marriage and physical abuse. While nine of the top 10 countries on the list of recent surveys are from Asia, the Middle East or Africa, number 10 is the U.S., the only Western country included on the list. That might be because of the #MeToo movement in the last couple of years, which has got critics for speaking only for white, privileged women despite its black female origin. To recall, Tarana Burke, a black American activist from the Bronx, New York, is the first woman who started the #MeToo movement in 2006, began using the phrase “Me Too” on MySpace platform, in order to raise awareness against sexual abuse and violence targeting women.

Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen and Nigeria are between India and the U.S. respectively on those survey lists.

Don’t you think that the women who live in those countries also deserve some campaigns such as #MeToo movement? Since they can’t speak for themselves, shouldn’t we be their voice? Considering the fact that conflicts have highly increased over the last two decades in the world and most of those women trapped these zones are in danger of rape, gang rape, forced marriage, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation, forced prostitution, trafficking, which are also different forms of violence that are used as “tools of wars”. The number of women who are trying to survive in countries which are torn by civil wars are enormous and the statistics, obviously, cannot be trusted as they are silenced. They are detained and put in prisons, used as bargaining chips, treated as tools between the conflicting parties. These are not only violation of women rights, but also war crimes.  

We are so busy talking about geopolitics, and to be honest, looking for new ways to mess up things in the international arena again and again, and we always forget the main victims in those arenas: Women and children.

Let’s give some statistics. According to the latest report of Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), an independent, neutral, nongovernmental, nonprofit human rights organization, at least 16,104 women (adult female) were murdered at their hands of conflicting parties since the start of the civil war in Syria, while 11,923 women were killed by the Syrian regime, 969 by Russian attacks and 587 by ISIS. On the other hand, 819 women were killed by the US-led coalition forces and the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed PKK and the ally of the U.S. on the ground.

Meanwhile, more than 9,250 women are arrested or forcibly disappeared at the hands of the parties of the conflict in Syria, while at least 8,029 of these were detained by Syrian regime and still held in various detention centers.

The SNHR also reports that regime forces are responsible for sexual violence against at least 8,013 women, among more than 11,523 overall Syria. However, it is known that the actual number of women raped in prisons is much larger than these figures since most of the arrests are not recorded, the victims are forced to remain silent, or they are ashamed of talking. At least 92 women were killed due to torture at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria, with 74 of them killed at the hands of Syrian regime forces, the SNHR adds.

As a journalist who periodically follow these reports, I can say that the numbers are still increasing although the violence in the war-torn country has deescalated in the last couple of years. And I, once again, have to note that the real figures quite likely are much higher as collecting data and keeping the statistics is almost impossible for humanitarian organizations. Also, we have to keep in mind that we have just discussed the cases only in Syria.

Children are also in danger of malnutrition, maltreatment, violence and sexual abuse in these areas. Even if they find a chance to survive, they become the victims of the traumas both physically and psychologically and suffer from post-traumatic syndromes or mental health disorders in their whole life. Then, the countries, which declare “war on terrorism”, carpet-bomb the zones where the terrorists exist ignoring the civilians, ask once again why they can’t bring an end to terrorism There is nothing to uncomprehend, as those children, who cannot forget what happened to their homes, parents and hometowns, mostly join those never-ending fights. In short, we are just helping them to become new “weapons”.

Now I want to ask whether you think that the guardians in the prisons give roses to their female detainees on March 8 International Women’s Day, and stop beating, torturing or raping them just for 24 hours?

So, as I said at the beginning, there is nothing to celebrate for me on March 8 but a lot to mourn.

Merve Şebnem Oruç is an award-winning Turkish journalist and columnist for Daily Sabah and HABER. She is on Twitter here.