Today, March 8, marks International Women’s Day (#IWD2018) – “a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.”
This is an exciting time to identify as a woman. In 2016, a female presidential candidate earned the Democratic Party nomination for the first time and ran a strong campaign that resulted in more popular votes than her opponent. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have brought critical attention to and recognition of sexual assault and harassment. And women are launching campaigns and running for political office in record numbers, with support from organizations such as She Should Run and VoteRunLead.
A search of #InternationalWomensDay and #IWD2018 on social media provides insight into incredible female leaders across the world who have or are currently facing adversity, challenging stereotypes, and breaking down barriers. Many are iconic names such Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, and Gloria Steinem. Organizations like Forbes, BBC, and Boeing are highlighting how women are changing the face of sports, science, and technology.
But for every well-known female leader, there are hundreds of women changing lives in their local communities who often remain unrecognized. I met some of these amazing women in El Salvador as part of a study abroad program focused on understanding how the civil war impacted women and children in the country. Through this experience, I had the opportunity to meet with grassroots women’s organizations and female political leaders, and share meals with women living in rural communities. These women changed the trajectory of my life.
Some of the groups we met with included:
- Pro-Busqúeda: a non-profit organization that investigates cases of and searches for children who were disappeared during the conflict
- COMADRES: a human rights organization that offers assistance to the victims and families of those imprisoned, murdered, or disappeared during the civil war
- AMUSAMECO: a weekly group for women in San Salvador that provides social and emotional support while also teaching a profitable skill such as paper quilling and card making
Across the organizations, women shared their experiences with poverty, violence, lack of employment opportunities, and the machismo tradition. The testimonies shared of physical and sexual violence were unfathomable. I learned of abuses I did not know existed and cannot comprehend. Those images will forever remain etched in my brain. I heard about husbands, brothers, and children being disappeared and/or killed. It was excruciatingly heartbreaking and I feel humbled that the women shared their stories.
When I reflect on this experience, I am continually reminded of the resilience, gratitude, and sense of community that these women demonstrated. They truly embody the spirit behind International Women’s Day – to celebrate “the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.” Despite having experienced unimaginable violence and loss, the women persisted.
For example, during El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1991), 90,000 people were killed and thousands of children disappeared. Many children were trafficked and sent for adoption in other countries. Pro-Busqúeda has investigated over 800 cases of disappeared children and, as of 2014, had solved 300. The strength and tenacity of the women and families involved with Pro-Busqúeda demonstrate the transformative power of advocacy and activism.
By challenging the status quo, these women have changed the trajectories of their families. They have formed grassroots organizations, learned new trades, leaned on each other for support, and challenged the machismo culture in their homes and the community. One woman shared how she climbed out of her window when her husband forbade her from leaving the home so that she could attend the AMUSAMECO support group. These women are paving the way for future generations with every small shift in cultural and gender norms.
Not only are the women changing their lives, they have changed mine as well. The impact this experience had on my life was so profound that it is difficult to put into words. Hearing these women’s stories was one of the key reasons that I pursued social work and public health. This experience taught me the impact that communities have on health and wellbeing. I understood the effect systems and cultural norms can have on advancing or curbing opportunities. I also saw the role resilience and social supports play in overcoming adversity. Moreover, I witnessed the impact of personal stories on shifting norms and policies, which is a testament to the power of lived experience, advocacy, and activism. These women are the strongest and most tenacious change agents I have ever met.
The women involved with Pro-Búsqueda, COMADRES, and AMUSAMECO are just one example of the many women around the world who are challenging the status quo and accelerating gender parity. There are so many others whose stories remain untold. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I encourage you to recognize the women in your lives and communities that are working to #PressforProgress. We are all stronger when we lift each other up and celebrate each other’s successes.