Kenyan Women during an International Women's Day event, in Nairobi. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The head of the new U.N. women's agency said Tuesday there has been "remarkable progress" since International Women's Day was first celebrated a century ago but gender equality remains a distant goal because women still suffer widespread discrimination and lack political and economic clout.
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said in a statement marking the 100th anniversary that the pioneering women who launched the commemoration to promote better working conditions, the right to vote and hold public office, and equality with men, would probably look at the world today "with a mixture of pride and disappointment."
It was discrimination against women that brought over one million women and men from the socialist movement onto the streets for rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on what was originally called International Working Women's Day on March 19, 1911.
The day became popular in Eastern Europe, Russia and the former Soviet bloc, and eventually spread around the globe. In some regions, it lost its political flavor and became an occasion for men to express their love for women with candy and flowers while in other regions, women's struggle for human rights and political and social equality remained the focus.
In 1975, during International Women's Year, the United Nations began celebrating March 8 as International Women's Day. Two years later the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a day for women's rights and international peace. This year, events are being held in many countries to mark the 100th anniversary.
"The last century has seen an unprecedented expansion of women's legal rights and entitlements," Bachelet said, pointing to virtually universal voting rights for women, major inroads for women in professions from which they were banned, laws penalizing domestic violence in two-thirds of the world's nations, and U.N. Security Council recognition of sexual violence as a deliberate tactic of war.
But Bachelet, who became the first executive director of UN Women in January, said that despite this progress, "the hopes of equality expressed on that first International Women's Day are a long way from being realized."
Girls are still less likely to be in school than boys, almost two-thirds of illiterate adults are women, and every 90 seconds a woman dies in pregnancy or due to childbirth-related complications despite the knowledge and resources to make births safe, she said, and women continue to earn less than men for the same work and have unequal inheritance rights and access to land.
Despite some high-profile advances, Bachelet said, only 28 women are heads of state or government and just 8 percent are peace negotiators. Last week, the Inter-Parliamentary reported that while the number of women in legislatures reached an all-time high of 19.1 percent in 2010, "the target of gender balance in politics is still a distant one."
Cracking the glass ceiling also remains an uphill struggle for women in business, especially getting into boardrooms and heading major companies.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report Monday that women farmers also face serious discrimination.
Giving women the same tools and resources as men, including better access to land, technology, financial services, education and access to markets could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by up to 150 million, the report said.
Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, said equal rights are advanced when girls can avoid child marriage and enjoy equal access to education, both men and women can plan their families, and pregnant women no longer fear losing their jobs.