International Women’s Day 2021 – A Reflection

Eva Braithwaite, Clinical and Digital Change Leader in the Health Informatics team and member of our Workforce Race Equality Network, shares her reflections on this year’s International Women’s Day.

Jasmine Harrison, a Yorkshire-born teacher just rowed solo across the Atlantic, now the youngest woman to make the crossing. This month, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala begins her tenure as the WTO’s first female Director-General. Eddie Izzard completed a daily marathon and stand-up gig in January in her fundraising quest to “Make Humanity Great Again” and Professor Sarah Gilbert is leading the team that developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

These four women have caught my attention over recent months, four of many women leading in their fields, making contributions and celebrating achievements.

Since the first International Women’s Day in 1911, many ground-breaking actions by women have been made, but with less celebration and credit. The contributions women have made to human advancement and their unique stories were always manifold, if hidden or appropriated. The state of things today is much improved, women have more opportunities than ever to make their mark. Progress has been made.

But progress is not linear, or uniform.

This is true of an individual’s journey of recovery, of global struggles for access to health, or gender equality. Even though the general trajectory of progress marches on, we see it tested by the assumption of, or reversion to, gender roles and a host of inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic.

In the UK’s first lockdown, two-thirds of extra childcare, home-schooling and unpaid labour was undertaken by women. Additionally, an article from Naila Kabeer, Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex reminds us of the feminisation of labour. Industries sustained by the work of women, sectors that are grappling with forced closure, lower wages and increased insecurity in the Covid era.

Gender disparity, both subtle and overt in respect of women’s work, is clear and present in women’s health and pain too. In recent years, we’ve seen great changes in attitudes, policy, rights frameworks and UK law to improve the care and support for those with learning disabilities. However, we know that people with a learning disability have poorer health outcomes and lower life expectancies than those without, and figures and experiences get worse still for women.  Access to perinatal and reproductive health is already uneven nationally and globally, and pervasive stigma and sociocultural barriers means that some women will hesitate to “add pressure” to already overburdened healthcare systems.

Alongside structurally challenging but diverse experiences of uneven access to care, many women contend with direct, interpersonal, gender-based violence. Relationship abuse and domestic violence has been amplified under lockdown, disproportionately impacting women behind closed doors. Meanwhile in the media and public sphere, a multi-pronged attack on trans-women being somehow a threat to biological reality and the hard-fought feminist rights of cis-women, is as corrosive and damaging as violence and coercion.

An annual day acknowledging women’s experiences invites us to consider what’s changed in the preceding year, as well as to take the longer view. To do the latter is to see tangible progress, exemplified by the multitude of women leading and working to inspire us all. But through a deadly pandemic, we see obstruction and challenge to this progress from all flanks, with a particularly gendered impact on women who are disabled, homeless, trans, low-income, of single-parent households, unemployed, of ethnic or religious minorities, and on either end of the general lifespan.

That said, there is no hierarchy of suffering, an unhelpful framework that mostly stops us from speaking about our own challenges. Equally, relative privilege doesn’t isolate you from the power structures seeking to diminish your agency as a woman or person, as Dubai’s Princess Latifa might attest.

Reflecting on this, I have never been clearer that this agency is ours to protect and revere. Wealth and privilege are not required to exercise it and developing a vaccine or a WTO appointment aren’t prerequisites to being valuable or valued. At this very moment women farmers, who make up three quarters of the rural workforce in India but own only 13% of the land, are protesting agrarian reforms and articulating their agency on an international stage. Feminist groups in France are seeking change to consent laws, to protect children from being abused by people in positions of power, and Sheffield GP Dr Sylvia Kama-Kieghe, founder of AskAwayHealth, is offering clear, sensitive guidance to tackle vaccine hesitancy for communities of colour.

A five-year international project led by agencies including Sonke, MenEngage Alliance and Promundo has recently concluded. These progressive partners take a transformative, intersectional approach and include men and boys in solutions to gender inequality. This is critical to goals that pursue a state of gender equality, which is in the interest of everyone and at expense of exactly no-one.

International Women’s Day celebrates women, of every guise and multi-layered identity. It also reminds us of our capacity and our agency. We use this agency to be better citizens and community leaders.  To love our families and to support our service users in the best ways we know. Yet our agency and the power it brings is at its strongest and most joyous when we recognise it in others, when we include everyone, and nobody gets left behind.