Prague, 6 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- International Women's Day, March 8, traces its roots back 90 years to the working women of the northern United States and a drive to improve labor conditions for women.
But this year, international human rights organizations are seizing on what has become an internationally recognized holiday to demand that governments around the world work to prevent violence against women.
Calling violence against women a human rights issue, newly appointed U.N. Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette opened a ceremony yesterday in New York commemorating the day.
Another senior UN official, High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland, said victims of such violence -- including battery, incest, sexual slavery and rape -- should be remembered on International Women's Day.
Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch joined the UN Commission on the Status of Women, also meeting in New York this week, to say that governments must send the message that violence against women in their countries is unacceptable.
UN Commissioner Emma Bonino will host a seminar in Europe this week to discuss abuses against women in Afghanistan.
This year's calls for action come after several high-profile cases of institutionalized oppression of women figured prominently in news reports. International outrage over reported Bosnian Serb rape camps and charges of repression by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan galvanized international groups.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, said abuse against women occurs in every country and every region. She spoke of meeting a former sex slave in Poland, an elderly rape victim in South Africa and a battered wife in Brazil.
Coomeraswamy also recounted a monument in a Rwandan church to women who died in the 1994 massacres of more than 500,000 Tutsis and Hutus. It was the skeleton of a woman encased in a glass cage. The woman had been killed in a sexual assault in the church. Coomeraswamy expressed horror at such violence, and called for a culture of sensitivity to prevent such actions.
International Women's Day is rooted in the labor movement. Socialist parties and labor unions were the first to establish a day to celebrate the accomplishments of working women. The movement gained momentum after an industrial fire in 1911, in which 140 immigrant women working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City died because of a lack of safety measures. The Conference of the Socialist International proposed an International Women's Day the same year.
But for an observation with such a specific beginning, International Women's Day is observed in a variety of ways.
Many celebrations around the world will include seminars on women's rights and domestic violence and will feature speakers and performances. Observances range from a march in Malawi-- where hundreds of women are expected to march through the streets of Blantyre to protest governmental disregard of gender issues -- to free manicures and workshops on car maintenance, baby massage and job skills in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Aromatherapy and manicures aside, reports show that women have much to celebrate and a substantial way to go.
An Israeli report says women there are better educated and hold more managerial positions than ever before but still are paid less than men for their work. The UN estimates that on average worldwide, women receive between 30 and 40 percent less pay than men for doing the same work.
In Turkey, where Tansu Ciller was briefly prime minister, legislators proposing that the now-outlawed Islamic Welfare Party be renamed Fazilet, which means virtue, were opposed by one deputy who protested that nobody would take seriously a party with a woman's name.
In Russia, International Women's Day is an official holiday. The observance began in 1917, when Russian women went on strike for bread and peace. Now lights are strung on city streets and banners are flown extolling the beauty, intelligence and strength of Russian women. Men buy flowers and chocolates for their wives and girlfriends. But women traditionally still prepare the holiday meal while men watch TV and drink vodka.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov spoke to the occasion yesterday (March 5). He said that nothing is more frightening than a woman who is both clever and pretty. He said he preferred women who don't ask questions and don't talk about critical issues.