This International Women’s Day, I was kindly invited to present a talk at the WOW (Women of the World) Festival in Cambridge. It was the first ‘gig’ I’d ever had as a feminist writer, and the whole morning I was a bit too anxious to really feel fully involved with the festivities which were going on around me. Thankfully it all went well, and I even got a few laughs at my terrible jokes (probably led by my mum, who was sat in the audience with a friend she’d persuaded the film the whole thing on an iPad).
Once I’d finished I was able to fully immerse myself in the day, and the discussions which I attended made me really think about what International Women’s Day means to me. There’s a lot of suggestion that the day is unnecessary, not because we’re equal now (although people are misguidedly saying that too); but because it’s patronising to give women their own special day, a pat on the head in a world where we are systematically under-represented and under-valued.
I disagree with this idea completely. It’s crucial that we celebrate the advances women have made, and give opportunity to be inspired by the women who have overcome great hurdles to succeed in a million different amazing ways.
I could talk at length about the various discussions and workshops that were going on throughout the day, but I will focus on the one I found the most powerful; ‘The Education Emergency.’ Professor Pauline Rose noted that it was called this because 2015 was the year set out by the Millennium Development Goals where all children should be completing primary education – yet, 72 million children globally do not have access to schooling, and girls are losing out in disproportionate numbers. At the talk, we heard from Fatima Yakubu, a Ugandan nurse who was supported through her training by charity Camfed. She was the only one of her 14 siblings to be able to get an education – for this, her mother and to sell her belongings, and Fatima had to spend morning and evenings daily selling chewing sticks at the market. When speaking about the empowerment education had brought her, she said “I have achieved my life-long dream of being a nurse, I know I am a role model and I am proud of myself,” to which the audience cheered in deafening support.
Malala Yousafzai’s former teacher, Mariam Khalique, also spoke about the difficulties Pakistani girls have had in accessing education, after the Taliban banned it in 2009. Girls’ schools still exist, but only in about half the numbers that boys’ schools do and many are kept away from them. She emphasised that education for women benefits everyone; it enables far more potential for a nation to be realised, but that some men are scared of it “because women will think freely.”
Closer to home, we also heard from Zoah Hedges-Stocks, who grew up on a travelling funfair that she can trace her family working on for the past 200 years. She said that her mother wanted to give her the choice to do something different, and began limiting the time they spent travelling so Zoah would only have to miss the last term of school each year. In 2013, she graduated with a first class degree from Cambridge, and is working as a journalist. She credited her success to her own dedication, as well as the support tutors who came in for an hour a week to sit with her and go over her work. She powerfully reminded us that there are still many children in the UK who aren’t able to finish school for a variety of circumstances, and that more needs to be done to extend educational opportunities to everyone.
I don’t think I was alone in feeling just a little ashamed at how I have taken my undisrupted schooling for granted. When I was growing up, going to school was never something I had to fight for, or ever anything I gave too much thought. But for so many people around the world, it is the ultimate privilege.
For me, I think, International Women’s Day is about finding unity in women, particularly amongst those whose experiences differ vastly from our own. It’s about elevating women’s voices, especially the voices of those who are heard the least. It’s a celebration of women, and the amazing things we do.