Reflections on International Women's Day

iwd_5.gifSaturday March 8th marked 100 years of commemorating International Women’s Day. (Mazel tov IWD!)
A lot of people are skeptical of such Days with a capital D, but — like birthdays — these Hallmark-like days of social consciousness are an opportunity to remember the things we should always keep in mind, such as that the people in our lives are important to us, even when they’re not turning a year older, and that, every day, women all over the world are still fighting for equality.

It’s worth noting how Jews around the world marked IWD this year — in Israel, a revelation of how far Israeli women still have to go to be on economic par with their male counterparts, and in the U.S., a show of solidarity by Jewish women for females in more dire straits than they are in the rest of the world.

In honor of IWD, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics released new data on the state of Israeli women. The bad though less-than-shocking news is that (after hours worked are factored into the equation), they earn 22.5 percent less than men do. (Without factoring in time worked, the average woman earns 63 cents to the average man’s dollar. By contrast, the average American woman earns 77 cents to the average American man’s dollar. Certainly not perfect, but better.) The statistics compare average wages earned by women versus men rather than comparing women’s and men’s salaries for the same job, so the disparity can be accounted for, at least partly, by the fact that women tend to work in lower paying positions than men do — despite their being more highly educated than men, on average.
What to make of these statistics is a subject for another, longer post, but here are a few resources on the subject:
In The Jerusalem Post, Asher Meir, research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem sees no cause for alarm in these statistics, arguing that the wage gap is due not to discrimination but freely chosen adherence to traditional gender roles, in which women stay at home more and thus earn less, while men work more and thus earn more. As Meir acknowledges, though, women’s rights groups argue that the current structure of the workplace discourages women with children who would like to be as career-oriented as their husbands. Additionally, a fascinating 2006 NYT article identifies circumstances explaining why the progress of American women in the workforce seems to have hit a brick wall.

On a different note, in America, Phyllis Snyder, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, marked IWD by encouraging the Jewish community to focus on women outside of the Jewish community. In an op-ed in The NY Jewish Week, Snyder urged “support for strong, evidence-based global HIV/AIDS prevention programs” as the program governing American aid for HIV/AIDS prevention, PEPFAR, comes up for renewal:

For the millions of women whose lives have been impacted by the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, the struggle for justice and equality is more dire than the earliest advocates of a March 8 holiday could have imagined. According to the United Nations (UN), three-quarters of all HIV-positive Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 are women.
Thankfully, the US is a leader in the fight against AIDS through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has provided $15 billion to combat AIDS in Africa since 2003. President Bush’s breakthrough effort is to be highly commended. But money is not enough. If those billions are not spent wisely, countless preventable deaths will result.
When sex is the topic, the fundamentalist right goes into high gear, and HIV/AIDS is no exception. The result has been that from the start, one-third of PEPFAR dollars for prevention have been restricted to abstinence-only programs — no matter that for the majority of these women, abstinence is not an option. Although abstinence-only as a means of preventing both pregnancy and disease has been widely discredited by scientific studies, broader successful African prevention programs promoting safe sex and condom use have become suspect and, in some cases, have been abandoned. Furthermore, organizations receiving PEPFAR funds must adopt a specific policy against “prostitution and human trafficking,” which increases stigma and constrains outreach to this high-risk population.
Now PEPFAR is up for reauthorization and the struggle to clear away these crippling provisions is underway. Sadly, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has just passed a bill that incorporates the legacy of abstinence-only. …
… Targeting women is key to reversing the HIV infection rate in Africa. The Senate needs to reauthorize PEPFAR without chaining this vital program to provisions that hinder rather than help AIDS prevention among women and men. An International Women’s Day dedicated to that goal would be a worthy commemoration of the women’s marches for justice and equality of a century ago.

I mention these two particular items because, taken together, they’re a good reminder of the balance we ought to strike between trying to better our own situation as women in the western world while keeping in perspective that, compared to women in so many other parts of the world, we have it pretty darn good, and that we should help those less fortunate than we are in whatever way we can.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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