Grieving Oppression, Celebrating Strength: Reflections on International Women’s Day


During my first summer as a tree planter in northwestern B.C., I had a startling encounter that changed my perspective of the status of women forever.

At the time, I was nineteen and bursting with feminist pride. Having completed my first year of university, I was considering the options for my major over the course of that summer and kept coming back to my passion for women’s issues.

On one of the early days of the tree planting season, one of the members of my crew was getting to know me and asked what I had been studying. I explained I’d been exploring different justice-related options, but that I was interested in pursuing a major or minor in Women’s Studies.

He looked at me with a bemused expression, scoffed, and said, “Women’s Studies—really? You don’t think that still matters in this day and age, do you?”

Had I been a cartoon character, plumes of smoke would’ve shot from my ears in classic rage. Instead, shock occupied my whole body as I realized that this man—like many others—believed that because women can now vote, wear pants, and aspire to do more than reproduce, the women’s rights movement has served its purpose. Studying the status of women is irrelevant. Having an International Women’s Day every year is pointless.

Years after this encounter, I began working in the anti-trafficking field. Everything I saw on the field dispelled the popular belief that women’s rights no longer matter.

When I was on a site visit to our European anti-trafficking projects, I spent a few days in a sleepy Bulgarian town where our partners were working with a resource-poor Roma community. As we trekked through the Romany ghetto, I noticed a young girl—no more than twelve years old—sitting on a bench outside a decrepit house. Her eyes were vacant, staring at nothing but the heaps of trash outside her home. She was the embodiment of hopelessness and despair.

But her sorrow was valid. Because in some Roma communities, girls aren’t considered to be worth much. Families sometimes celebrate the birth of a girl—not for her intrinsic human value—but because she can be sold for the price of a horse when she’s older. The vast majority of Romany women never complete their schooling, because they’re often forced into arranged marriages by the time they reach puberty. The intense vulnerability of these women and girls ends up creating the conditions for human trafficking and exploitation to thrive.

Stories like this are a grave reminder that studying and responding to the systemic oppression of women IS still relevant today. And unfortunately, the devaluation of Roma girls isn’t the only example. Addressing the status of women still matters because:

But do you know why else it matters that we shine the spotlight on women today? Because women are more than “victims”. Women are powerful. Despite the complex intersectionality of gender, race, economics, culture, and politics that perpetuates systemic oppression, women have still surpassed the obstacles to make enormous contributions to the world.

And I’m not just talking about the Malalas and the Oprahs, either. I’m talking about the ordinary women in our lives who do extraordinary things. I’m talking about my best friend, Sarah, who was told by a man she was interviewing for a tree planting job that he couldn’t possibly have a woman as a boss—and yet she went on, undeterred, to be one of the best foremen I’ve ever seen.

I’m talking about my mom, a home care nurse, who literally shovels her way through snow in northwestern Ontario blizzards to take care of patients who are too sick to leave their homes.

I’m talking about my resilient friend, Jess, who has been held up at gunpoint while living in the Middle East to help Syrian refugees—but her fierce passion and untameable spirit keeps her going. Her compassion is bigger than her fear.

And when I think about all the people I’ve interacted with in the anti-trafficking sphere, it tends to be women who are most deeply involved in impressively high numbers.  Not just in traditional administrative roles, either – I’m talking about women in dangerous frontline work who risk their lives to protect, rescue, and restore.

So, when I think back to that encounter with my male co-worker, the one who thought that conversations about the status of women are pointless, I still shake my head. Because there IS still so much work that needs to be done for women’s rights, both here at home and around the world, which requires the care, concern, and action from the international community.  But there’s more to the conversation than grieving the struggles of women – because there’s so much to be celebrated, too.