A father’s thoughts on International Women’s Day

This week’s blog is written by Dan Leonard, operating principles coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee. He is the proud father of a three-year-old daughter.

As my daughter and I were reading the popular children’s book Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, I was struck that all the machines in the book were referred to as he and him. Obviously assigning gender to inanimate objects can itself be an odd activity. But since the author decided that all strong, rough, hard-working construction vehicles were men, I decided to change the pronoun for every other machine to she and her. Having read the book other times, my daughter at first objected to this “people’s history of heavy equipment,” but she has since grown used to it.

The girls section in a typical toystore.

The girls’ section in a typical toystore.

Having a daughter makes it hard to ignore the social construction of gender. Whether it is clothing or toys, a crowd of pink princesses seems to invade our home on a daily basis, despite our best efforts for balance. Harmless as it may seem that there are no female trucks working at the construction site in a children’s book, it accompanies an absence of stories with girls and women as students, professors, adventurers, pastors, doctors, athletes, problem solvers, creators, heroes, politicians, or leaders.

Indeed, a 2011 study on gender and children’s books found that only 31 percent of children’s books have female central characters, and these characters are often represented in traditional gender roles.

In the coming two weeks the UN Commission on the Status of Women will hold meetings in New York to discuss how well the Millennium Development Goals have addressed issues of gender equity. So it’s a good time to assess where we are globally in the pursuit of gender equity. Unfortunately, there are many reasons to despair. Consider these examples:

  • According to the UN there is no country in the world where women earn on average more than men;
  • While the percentage of women out-of-school is decreasing, enrollment numbers are stalling;
  • Women still bear the brunt of unpaid care;
  • Nearly half of murder cases facing Aboriginal women in Canada remain unsolved
    Two-thirds of illiterate individuals are women;
  • The majority of young people and adolescents do not have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and education;
  • 1 in 3 women will be beaten, abused, or raped in their lifetime;
  • An estimated 100-140 million girls are living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation with FGM most often occurring for girls before the age of 15.

Despite what we know about the importance of women and girls’ participation in development, the stats could go on.

Thankfully there is also good news. In Canada, more women enroll in college and university programs and are more likely to finish these programs with a degree. Globally, the percentage of girls out of school has decreased from 58 percent in 2000 to 53 percent. And apart from the numbers, courageous individuals like Malala Yousafzai challenge our temptation to remain cynical.

A girls school in eastern Bangladesh supported by MCC's Global Family Program.

A girls school in eastern Bangladesh supported by MCC’s Global Family Program.

At MCC we are committed — through one of our guiding principles — to dismantling barriers of gender-based oppression, and working to ensure the participation of all community members in program design, decision-making, and implementation. At the project level in Ethiopia, MCC works with socially and economically marginalized women living with HIV/AIDS in vocational training and income generating strategies. In Palestine, MCC works with women in rural areas to raise the awareness of their legal and civil rights and promote women’s participation in civil society organizations. In Canada and the US, MCC is working with local churches to end domestic violence. These are just some of the ways that MCC works towards gender equity.

As I’ve reflected on these things in the lead up to International Women’s Day on March  8, I’m struck that changing the pronouns of a children’s book most certainly is not going to solve these sorts of global problems, and neither will any single project. But in the face of overwhelming gender disparity, we can start by critically reflecting on the subtle and not so subtle patriarchal narratives that hinder gender equity in our homes, in our workplaces, in our countries, and around the world.

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