Kristina Hadzi Vasileva
Managing Director at Strategic Development Consulting and Chevening Scholar
Guest blogger for UK in North Macedonia
Part of UK in North Macedonia
6th March 2020 Skopje, North Macedonia
8 March – How far have we come?
The first week of March is always so intense for me. Not that there are no such other weeks during the year (family birthdays, new years’, vacation preparations..). Yet during the first week of March everyone and anyone suddenly remembers us, women. Flowers are sold on improvised stalls of cardboard boxes on every corner, presents are bought and given, dinners organized and celebrated with music and dancing. TV shows are hosted with the sole topic of discussing women’s rights, gender equality, domestic violence, political participation of women, women’s economic advancement. The reason, as you might guess is 8 of March. Recognized as international women’s day, this date celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.
The day has been designated as an official United Nations day for women’s rights and world peace since 1975 and is a national holiday in many parts of the world as it used to be in socialist Macedonia until the 90s.
The path to women’s equality, as history has revealed, is long and challenging. Different phases of the women’s movement provided an important focus in forging the gender agenda further along.
In 1909 the Socialist Party of America celebrated 15,000 women who protested long work hours, low pay, and the lack of voting rights in New York City. However, it was Russia who unknowingly set the March 8 trend. Although International Women’s Day became an official holiday in Russia in 1913, women still faced challenges since while men were off to fight the war, women dealt with food shortages and a government who wouldn’t listen to them. On March 8, 1917 tens of thousands of Russian women took to the streets demanding change. The unified cry for help paved the way for Soviet women to be granted voting rights soon after and indicates the significance of the date of the commemorations today. This is the period (late 1800’s and early 1900’s) when women activists fought for the right to vote and equal pay for equal work.
These two issues – women’s voice and participation in government; and the gender pay gap – still remain priorities over a century later.
In the context of western societies, women’s movement is seen as waves and differentiates between four waves of feminism.
The second wave of feminism began in the 1960s and continued into the 90s with sexuality and reproductive rights being dominant issues. In the 1980’s the focus was on an array of progams that assisted women in being more confident, visible, well-networked and assertive – but many reinforced a notion that women needed to “act like men” and “fit” into existing patriarchal structures and organizations if they were to succeed (all while still being a superwoman in the home).
The third wave of feminists (mid-90’s) proposed the notion of “transversal politics”, challenging notions of universal womanhood and articulating ways in which groups of women confront complex intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, and age related concerns. The focus was on organizational development: focus on women in the boardroom, diversity in recruitment and gender-related research.
Fourth wave feminists discuss it in terms of intersectionality, placing feminism as part of a larger consciousness of oppression along with racism, ageism, classism, ableism, and sexual orientation. The fourth wave of feminism is emerging because (mostly) young women and men realize that the third wave is either overly optimistic or hampered by blinders. Feminism is now moving from the academy and back into the realm of public discourse. Topics that were important to the previous phases of the women’s movement are attracting attention from mainstream media and politics. Issues such as sexual abuse, rape, violence against women, unequal pay, slut shaming, the pressure on women to conform to a single and unrealistic body-type and the realization that gains for women in politics and business are very slim, are its center.
So what is to celebrate then? How far have we really come?
Even though Macedonian women gained the right to vote in 1946 the progress of the women’s movement in North Macedonia reminds me of the national folk dance – three steps forward, two steps back. The women’s movement has been credited in the past (especially late 90s and early 2000s) for successfully uniting diverse groups of women – representatives of different political parties, civil society organizations, women from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, individual activists. The movement managed to secure 40% women’s representation on election lists for local and parliamentary elections, the adoption of a number of laws pertaining to combating domestic violence, (sexual) harassment at work and discrimination as well as promoting equal opportunities of women and men and supporting abortion rights and rights of women in the work place. Yet, the context of regressive forces gaining ground in the past decade (2006-2017) has led to reinforcing patriarchal models and perspectives of women. The result is a fragmented women movement and women’s organizations which are struggling. The number of active organizations and initiatives at local level rapidly declines, especially in the small towns and rural areas. They face huge challenge recruiting young girls and women, since civic activism is not attractive to them. Women’s issues are still at the margins of the mainstream public debate. Advocacy, inclusive mindsets and tangible action are needed from all.
In North Macedonia, International Women’s Day is celebrated as women’s day, women teacher’s day, mother’s day distorting the real meaning it has and turning it into a reason to spend money for the mothers, teachers, wives, lovers, friends. Female colleagues and friends organize evenings out in restaurants and bars dancing the night away in short-lived socially acceptable freedom to do so publicly. Those better off, organize all-female trips to spa centers and shopping destinations.
After setting of some steam, women go back to normal, everyday life. So, what is everyday life like for women in North Macedonia?
Women are still less employed than men with employment rates of 39% women versus 61% men which directly impacts their wellbeing and the welfare of their families while society loses the contribution of a large portion of the population for its development. In addition, majority of women tend to be employed in low paid, labour intensive spheres such as textile production resulting in difference in wage gap between men and women of 12%.
Women are still mostly responsible for taking care of the children, the sick and the elderly in the family forcing them to interrupt their work for care of children (89.3 % women vs. 10.7% men) and/or take up part-time work. Childcare systems are in place albeit 26 municipalities currently do not have public day care.
In addition, women spend 3 times more time on domestic activities compared men showcasing the still very much existing traditional division of work between the genders.
Access to healthcare is guaranteed by the Constitution yet 43 municipalities of the existing 81 lack gynaecological services.
Every third woman in the country has experienced some form of gender based violence and in the past 5 years 70 have been killed of which 51 are victims of femicide.
Movements like #SegaKazuvam, #TaniTregoj showcased the enormous albeit hidden range of sexual harassment women experience but resist to report officially.
It’s now 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and pledge for improving the status of women and their wellbeing in public and private life. While there has been much progress towards women’s rights over the decades, many gaps remain. That is why the UN has incorporated gender equality as a separate Sustaianble Development Goal in order to establish minimum standards and push change forward in the critical areas that are holding women back. The latest report on the SDGs shows that while some forms of discrimination against women and girls are declining, gender inequality continues to hold women back and deprives them of basic rights and opportunities.
I think of 8 march as a milestone. It is there to remind us to look back where we were and what we have achieved or not.
So every march 8 we need to remind ourselves how far we have come and to set the agenda for the year with things still missing and to say loudly: Let’s all be #EachforEqual.
Note: British Embassy Skopje offers its blog platform for guest posts to members of organisations who are partner implementers of UK’s programme assistance to North Macedonia. The views expressed in the guest posts are those of the authors.