TOMORROW marks the official worldwide celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD). Originally called “International Working Women’s Day,” this global event celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. In the Philippines, the red-letter day kicks off the month-long celebration of women initiated by the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) and participated in by various government agencies, including the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
If you think the observance of International Women’s Day is of recent vintage, think again.
The roots of this annual celebration of women actually goes as far back as the early 20th century when working women in the United States participated in organizing strike activities of the National Women’s Trade Union League and other groups because of the poor working conditions to which women workers were subjected during that time such as low wages, and lack of protective legislation, among others.
A tragic incident more than 100 years ago, on March 25, 1911 is said to have inspired and galvanized this movement for working women. According to historical accounts, a fire spread through the cramped Triangle Waist Company garment factory of the Asch Building in lower Manhattan, and the mostly young immigrant women workers in the factory had little time or opportunity to escape. The fiery inferno eventually claimed the lives of 146 workers.
The catastrophe sent shockwaves throughout the immigrant community, where families struggled to identify their dead in makeshift morgues. The resulting public outcry spurred the movement pushing to improve women’s rights in the workplace.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Clara Zetkin and other socialist leaders proposed the establishment of an annual International Woman’s Day initially to promote equal rights, including the right to vote, for women. On March 19, 1911, IWD was marked for the first time by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In different parts of the world, movements working to promote women’s rights began observing their own annual celebration. Eventually, the IWD was officially recognized by the United Nations to celebrate women’s contributions to all societies in the late 1970s.
But International Women’s Day is not about who is the better gender but rather about “helping women advance and unleash their limitless potential” in a more inclusive, gender-equal world. As a famous feminist, journalist and social activist Gloria Steinem once said: “The story or women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”
In the Philippines, the role of women in nation-building is officially celebrated through Republic Act 6949 declaring March 8 of every year as “National Women’s Day.” There is also the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, which monitors our country’s adherence to the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
To this end, the country has passed Republic Act 9710, or the Magna Carta of Women, to counteract discrimination against women and promote gender equality.
For its part, the OWWA implements the provisions of the convention calling on the State “to adopt a policy creating safe and protected jobs for women as overseas contract workers” by conducting pre-departure orientation seminars (PDOS), for instance, in order to protect women migrant workers from illegal recruitment and trafficking.
Moreover, OWWA has assigned women welfare officers and staff in high-risk areas like the Middle East to better address and attend to welfare and labor-related concerns of our women migrant workers, especially those working as household service workers (HSWs).
In its own backyard, OWWA observes the rule of fair treatment, gender equality and the promotion of gender and development (GAD) in the workplace, including the hiring of personnel. In fact, female employees in the agency outnumber the men. This is not to demean the capabilities of our male personnel. Rather, it is a testament to the competence, skills, talents and confidence of women in the different areas of public service.
As part of its celebration of IWD, OWWA will honor 17 female overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) nominated by accredited OWWA Family Circles, or “OFCs,” which are, briefly, groups or associations of current or former OFWs and their families organized by the agency as support groups in migrant worker communities.
The awardees epitomize this year’s theme: “WE Make Change Work for Women,” with “WE” as the acronym for “Women” and “Empowerment.” Although these dedicated and hard-working women OFWs sacrificed a lot by working abroad, they nonetheless managed to perform their parental duties and maintain the harmonious relationship within their respective families through sheer discipline and determination.
These female OFWs are the face of countless mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters toiling in foreign lands to provide for their families. Indeed, a month-long tribute to women is not enough to fully commemorate their invaluable contribution to our families, our communities or to our society.
As Barack Obama once said: “Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.” Amen to that.