The first International Women's Day, celebrated in 1911, was marked by rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland with over one million women and men attending. Today, International Women's Day is commemorated each year by the United Nations (UN) and women throughout the world.
This year, International Women's Day focused on the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on women and girls. According to a statement by the UN's Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "At the beginning, many people thought of AIDS as a disease striking mainly at men. Even a decade ago, statistics indicated that women were less affected. But a terrifying pattern has since emerged. All over the world, women are increasingly bearing the brunt of the epidemic."1
Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of UNIFEM, the women's fund at the UN, noted that as preparations begin for the tenth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing, women's voices must "be heard again."
"Ten years ago, women were at the periphery of the epidemic. Today, they are at its epicenter. For young women the situation is particularly alarming. Young women in the developing world outnumber young men among newly infected 15-24 year olds by two to one," said Heyzer.
She went on to say, "The social impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls is greater-they are the ones who assume the burden of care when family members are affected by the disease, putting severe constraints on their access to education, employment, food cultivation, and often treatment. Violence against women, both a cause and a consequence of the epidemic, adds another major risk factor for transmission. Rape, sexual violence and women's inability to refuse unwanted sex or to demand safe sex are serious factors in the spread of the epidemic."2
To commemorate International Women's Day 2004, the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, and the Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality hosted an event at the UN headquarters in New York City. At the event, Secretary-General Annan, Queen Noor of Jordan, World Health Organization Director-General Jong-Wook Lee and others discussed the plight of women living with HIV/AIDS throughout the world.
Internationally, the day was marked with other events. In Geneva, the World Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and UNAIDS debuted a film entitled "Women Are." According to Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, General Secretary of the YWCA, "The film premiered today brings to life not only the deeply-rooted injustices and discrimination faced by women, but provides hope for the millions of women out there who feel disempowered and vulnerable. It is a wake-up call for women to take action to stem the tide of AIDS."3
Activists working within the United States called for a greater focus on the needs of women and girls in President Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. In an editorial by Janet Fleischman, chairwoman of the gender committee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' HIV/AIDS Task Force, and Kathleen Cravero, Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS write, "Given that more than half of those living with HIV/AIDS are women, the new treatment programs should address the realities of abuse and discrimination that women and girls face: the lethal combination of long-standing barriers to health care, the new threats of violence and abandonment that often result when a woman discloses her HIV status, and the underlying violence and inequities that put women and girls at particular risk of HIV transmission. The rollout of treatment programs provides an opportunity to link prevention and treatment and to curb the disproportionate impact on women and girls."
The authors conclude with the observation that "The success of the Bush administration's HIV/AIDS initiative will depend on its ability to meet these challenges."4
- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Message on International Women's Day. March 8, 2004.
- Statement by Noeleen Heyzer. UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). March 4, 2004.
- Press release UNAIDS and World YWCA. "Women on the Frontlines of the AIDS Response." March 8, 2004.
- Fleischman, Janet and Kathleen Cravero. "A focus on Women and AIDS." The Boston Globe. March 8, 2004.