As the 100th celebration of international women’s day approaches, I’ve been musing over the origins of the day and what it symbolizes. The first international women’s day was formally celebrated on March 19, 1911 throughout Europe, where both women and men advocated for women’s right to work under fair conditions.
In 2011, as USAID reiterates its support for advancing women’s rights, it is appropriate to reflect on how international development programs can continue to support this objective of international women’s day. The time is ripe to ask ourselves how we, as development practitioners, can continue to advance women’s role as income earners around the world.
From my twenty-six years of working in international development around the world, I believe that the key to a women’s ability to earn income is how the law defines her as an independent economic actor. Can she own and register a business? Qualify for credit without the signature of her husband, father or brother on a loan? Can she purchase property in her own name? Can she file taxes herself? Inherit property from her mother or father? What happens if she is widowed? To address these questions, USAID has sponsored several initiatives over the years that advance women’s legal rights, including rights related to income generation. These projects have initiated the dialogue over legislation which defines women status as individuals, statutes concerning marriage and divorce, inheritance and children, among other things.
USAID projects work to protect women’s rights by engaging government, civil society organizations, communities, and local leaders to change legislation that advances women’s rights. In some instances legislation change is directly related to enabling women’s economic engagement. However projects must also consider how to establish environments that are conducive to women’s economic participation. USAID has supported several projects which advance other aspects of women’s empowerment and ultimately contribute to her ability to earn an income. Projects such as the Women’s Legal Right Initiative worked in nine countries around the world on activities such as establishing policy to prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace and schools, and criminalize violence against women. In Benin, for example, this was put to practice by working with local NGOs to draft sexual harassment legislation that became law.
The first international women’s day was celebrated by both women and men. Recent studies on advancing women’s rights confirm that family dynamics for women get better when social policies and programs support greater involvement by men in these issues. A new publication by the UN documents this process showing how women’s status increases when she has earning opportunities that are reinforced with social policies that support both women and men.
As we begin to think about how we will shape the next one hundred international women’s days, it is good to remember the lessons we have learned to advance the conditions for working women; in terms of women’s role within the family and women’s role as income earners. USAID’s fresh focus on monitoring and evaluation of development programs will help document how specific activities help bring women into the development process as equal partners and the impact this has on family welfare and economic development.
Dr. Tisch is a social scientist with 22 years project management and technical expertise including 17 years of project experience in Asia. Serves as home office director of the USAID Indonesia Changes for Justice project and the USAID Anti-Trafficking in Persons project. Dr. Tisch is a three-time USAID chief of party (Women’s Legal Rights Initiative; dot-GOV program; Farmer-to-Farmer Program Russia and Ukraine). She served as project manager for the e-government Knowledge Map for the World Bank InfoDev program, project leader for the USAID/ANE Bureau ASEAN ICT Enhancement project, and program leader for the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative (Atlantic Philanthropic Services).