By: Danielle Beach-Oswald and Karen Smith*
International Women’s Day was March 8, 2012. The holiday was first proposed by Clara Zetkin of Germany in 1910, during the Second International Conference of Working Women. The holiday was observed for the first time on March 19, 1911, in the countries of Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. The date for the holiday was later changed to March 8, and it has been observed on this day ever since 1914. The holiday served as a platform for men and women to rally in support of women’s suffrage, the right of women to hold public office, and the right of women to be treated equally in the workforce.
Today, International Women’s Day is recognized as an official holiday in nearly thirty countries (the United States is unfortunately not included among this group). It has even captured the attention of the United Nations, which has held special International Women’s Day conferences to celebrate the holiday. In keeping with its roots, this holiday brings together people from across the globe to celebrate the achievements of women and rally for the end of discrimination against women. Events are held online and at locations in many of the countries whose citizens celebrate the holiday. These events include campaigns to raise money to support women, film screenings of documentaries about women’s rights activists, and programs that give training to aspiring female entrepreneurs.
The employees at Beach-Oswald see firsthand the progress in women’s equality, and recognize that there is still much to do to achieve full and fair participation of women in all parts of society. As immigration attorneys, we regularly work with female clients who are victims of forced marriage and female genital mutilation, and assist them with their asylum, VAWA, or U visa applications. We enjoy learning about our clients’ backgrounds and helping them obtain better lives in the United States.
Child marriage, or forced marriage, is commonly practiced in Africa and Asia. It exists in poor, rural communities because families cannot afford to care for young girls and parents choose to marry their daughters off at an early age so they will not continue to be financial burdens. Female victims of forced marriage continue the cycle of poverty, as they do not obtain educations since they are pulled out of school to be married, and they are expected to raise children and do housework rather than participate in the workforce.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 92 million girls, ages 10 and above, have been subjected to female genital mutilation, a procedure that involves the cutting, removal, and stitching back together of a young woman’s reproductive organs. The practice holds no health benefits for women and is not medically necessary, but it is a cultural practice that is observed in many parts of the world because it supposedly denotes a woman’s purity. Female genital mutilation may result in death or serious medical problems, including complications during childbirth.
Activists are working to put an end to forced marriage and female genital mutilation. The International Center for Research on Women has programs in communities in Nepal and India that educate people on the negative consequences of child marriage and find ways to delay marriage for girls. The World Health Organization works with international monitoring bodies to condemn female genital mutilation, and pushes for the enactment of laws in African countries that prohibit the practice.
We hope that this article will raise awareness of forced marriage and female genital mutilation, and motivate more people to advocate for the end of these dangerous, discriminatory practices. The more voices there are speaking out against these practices, the more pressure governments will feel to make positive change.
*Karen Smith is a legal intern at Beach-Oswald Immigration Law Associates and a third year student at American University Washington College of Law.
Photo credit: justicewithpeace.org