Andrea Mitchell: Women's Rights Are a Work in Progress

On the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell of Andrea Mitchell Reports ruminates on how far women have come -- and how far we still have to go -- to achieve equality.

And, if you're looking for a way to celebrate International Women's Day, take part in Join Women on the Bridge, an event you can attend in-person or virtually!

Fifteen years ago, Hillary Clinton created a new paradigm for women around the world when she equated women's rights with human rights at the Beijing Women’s Conference, declaring: “It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.”

The blunt diplomacy was unprecedented for a first lady -- and clearly threatening to China. Nearly two decades later, how far have women come in their struggle for equality?  By any measure, it is still a work in progress.  

Last month, Egyptian women gave us a lesson in revolution. Egypt is 125 out of 134 countries in gender equality. Forty-five percent of rural women are illiterate. Seventy-five percent of Egyptians believe men should be given jobs over women in tough economic times. But those statistics didn’t stop women of all economic backgrounds -- veiled and unveiled -- from standing together in Tahrir Square with men, pressing for change, chanting “Egypt is free.”

The January 25 revolution gave a glimpse of what Egypt could be. It’s clear women are not ready to be sidelined. What’s less clear is to what degree a new government will welcome their participation and protect their rights. Egyptian women have called for a "Million Women March" this Tuesday to demand that the military government remember women’s role in the revolution when it’s forming its new constitution. Afghanistan is another mixed picture. Parliamentary elections this summer demonstrated the real bravery of women who are demanding participation even in the most dangerous circumstances. Under the Taliban, women who had been doctors and teachers were barred from holding jobs. Religious police patrolled the streets in black pick-up trucks. This time, a record number of women stood for parliament -- more than 400 candidates -- but many were subjected to sustained political intimidation, late-night phone calls and threats. Electoral posters were defaced. Terrified family members begged their relatives to bow out of the race.

Sixty-eight of the 249 seats in Afghanistan’s parliament are reserved for women -- and 17 women won their seats outright. Still, the picture is bleak. Only 12 percent of girls can read at age 15, compared to 43 percent of boys. And some gains in women’s rights are being rolled back. New rules being drafted by President Hamid Karzai’s government bar private safe houses for women escaping abuse and require public shelters to evict them if their families demand their return.

Here at home, we’re not off the hook. The White House released a report last week showing that - despite enormous progress in education and opportunity, women still earn only 75 percent of what men bring home for the same work. The glass ceiling has splintered but it hasn’t shattered.

Last week, we watched the president award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 15 extraordinary Americans, including civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein, former ambassador and philanthropist Jean Kennedy Smith, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and poet Maya Angelou. “As a girl,” President Obama said, “Marguerite Ann Johnson endured trauma and abuse that actually led her to stop speaking.  But as a performer, and ultimately a writer, a poet, Maya Angelou found her voice.  It’s a voice that’s spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.”

On International Women’s Day, we are linked by the promise of what we can achieve with our combined voices, and the consolation we provide each other along the way, over the sometimes rough terrain.

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