(March 2013) March 8 marks the 102nd anniversary of International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is “The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum.” While the past century has witnessed much progress, much remains to be done in all regions of the world.

International Women’s Day traces its roots back to the second International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen in 1910. Over 100 female delegates from 17 countries voted unanimously that every year, in every country, the same day should be observed to call attention to their needs. The first International Women’s Day was launched the following year in 1911, nearly a decade before women in the United States would even have the right to vote.

International Women’s Day has taken on a broader meaning for women in both developed and developing countries. Thanks to the growing international women’s movement, bolstered by four global United Nations women’s conferences, the day now signifies a time to build support for women’s rights and equality in a number of arenas, including education, economics, and politics.

Gender equality and the empowerment of women are at the heart of many national and international commitments, including the UN Millennium Development Goals, but progress has been uneven and sluggish. While some developing regions have reached or are approaching gender parity in youth literacy and secondary school enrollment, challenges lie ahead for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and Western and South-Central Asia.

Despite legal means, early marriage (before the age of 18) persists, along with the associated risks of adolescent childbearing. Early marriage can also curtail the opportunities girls may have for education. In countries and regions with the highest proportions of early marriage, girls’ educational attainment is adversely affected. Literacy rates, primary school completion, and secondary school enrollment are all lower than that of boys.

In developing countries, one in three young women between the ages of 20 to 24 report having been married by age 18, and an astonishing one in nine girls have been forced into marriage between the ages of 10 and 14. And in the poorest regions of the world, according to PRB’s The World’s Women and Girls 2011 Data Sheet, the proportion of women marrying before age 18 is even higher, with levels ranging from 45 percent in South-Central Asia to nearly 40 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Nine countries have prevalence rates above 50 percent.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the total fertility rate (TFR) is 5.1 children per woman, the highest of any world region. But, in countries such as Mali, Niger, Somalia, and Uganda, where use of family planning is relatively low, the TFR is six or seven children per woman. Lack of partner support is often cited as a reason for not using family planning, more evidence of women’s lack of decisionmaking power.

Another measure of the distance that women still must travel is the discrepancy between the number of boy babies and girl babies born each year. Approximately 1.5 million girls around the world are missing at birth every year, a direct result of gender bias that values boys over girls; a trend toward smaller families; and modern medical technologies that are misused to fulfill parental desires.

There have been many successes to celebrate over the last hundred years, but challenges still remain in overcoming barriers to gender equality. International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate accomplishments but also to redouble efforts to address gender inequities and harmful traditions that prevent women and nations from fulfilling their full potential.


Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs is program director, Gender, at the Population Reference Bureau; Donna Clifton is a communications specialist, International Programs.