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The motherlode: women's struggle turns 100

By Evelyn Tsitas - posted Monday, 14 March 2011


It came, it went, and it turned 100. International Women's Day on 8 March resounded with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Annie Lennox and Bianca Jagger. It swelled with empowering speeches about equality from politicians such as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Yet at the end of the day, was there really anything to celebrate?

Certainly not for Indian women, who were greeted with a sobering report that revealed a staggering 86 per cent of Indian men surveyed by the International Centre for Research on Women and Brazil's Instituto Promundo agreed that the bulk of childcare – including the backbreaking nappy changing, bathing and feeding – was women's work. (www.icrw.org, Mar 9)

The study, which ranked Indian men lowest when it comes to gender equality, found that 47 per cent of Indian men would be "outraged" if their wives asked them to use a condom. It makes sense, as why bother when someone else will look after the child that may result from any sexual encounter?

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Worse still, 37% of Indian men said they have used or continue to use physical violence against a female partner. The factors associated with men's use of violence were "rigid gender attitudes, work stress, experiences of violence in childhood and alcohol use." Ajay Singh, who is with the New Delhi office of the International Center for Research on Women, said that the report throws a great deal of light on the "socialization process" and "conditioning of men and women" in India. (The Wall Street Journal, Mar 9)

Not that Australia can afford to be smug. Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis said with a female Prime Minister, female Governor General and three of the seven High Court Justices women, it was easy for people to overlook that the country also had one in three of its female residents over the age of 15 victims of physical assault. "Our domestic violence stats are absolutely horrifying," she said. (www.abc.net.au, Mar 8)

It appears that social scientists are correct when they say that women continue to face inequality in their daily lives. However, is it a matter of gender difference – or simply choice? Whether this inequality is about career advancement, better pay or life and death issues, it is clear that women around the world do it tougher than men simply because of their gender.

Having children or not is the great divide around the world when it comes to women's equality – in life or the workplace. A career woman with no children can act like man, work like a man and live like a man. A career woman with children must juggle what happens when a child is ill and she is needed at home. Male commentators debate that "family friendly policies" do more harm than good to women's careers. Yet guaranteed flexibility to care for one's children and juggle a paid job is the difference between being able to hold down that job or not. It is overwhelmingly women who carry the bulk of the physical and emotional responsibilities of parenting.

Former super model Christy Turlington Burns blogged for Huffington Post on International Women's Day. She wrote: "the standard by which we judge the health of our progress and equality shouldn't only be the woman who is CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or the number of women on the Supreme Court. It should also be the woman in Tanzania who believes her life is insignificant until she bears children, but when she does conceive, is not given the medical support to have a healthy pregnancy. (www.huffingtonpost.com, Mar 8)

In her directorial debut, Burns' documentary No Woman, No Cry tells the personal stories of pregnant women and their caregivers in four countries as they try to avoid becoming maternal mortality statistics. The film will premiere in the US on the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on May 7.

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Turlington pulls no punches with her film – showing audiences a pregnant obstetrician helping women who have no choice but to undergo illegal and dangerous abortions in Guatemala, and a midwife in central Florida who serves pregnant women who are denied prenatal care because they are uninsured. It is ghastly, and it is happening every day. Turlington is a mother herself. She admits to "survivor's guilt" - she haemorrhaged after the birth of her first child and subsequently learned that haemorrhage is a leading cause of maternal death and that hundreds of thousands of women die in childbirth every year. (www.smh.com.au April 26, 2010)

It is her empathy with the struggle other mothers go through, and the real stories about maternal death and hardship, that have inspired her to produce the movie and develop the accompanying website: www.everymothercounts.org.

The Every Mother Counts website has a thought provoking fact of the day – such as African American women are less likely than white women to begin prenatal care in the first trimester. For women, inequality often starts when they become pregnant. Turlington writes; "It is often said that maternal health is the key indicator of how well any country's health system is doing. It is also the way we can measure the value a country places on its women and children."

Do family friendly policies in the work place, far from reducing discrimination, increase it?The answer is surely the result of your personal perspective on this matter. For working mothers, or women who simply want to safely become mothers, equality is a battle that is far from over.

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About the Author

Dr Evelyn Tsitas works at RMIT University and has an extensive background in journalism (10 years at the Herald Sun) and communications. As well as crime fiction and horror, she writes about media, popular culture, parenting and Gothic horror and the arts and society in general. She likes to take her academic research to the mass media and to provoke debate.

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