Cover Women we admire share their takes on International Women's Day

Women across Asia weigh in on International Women’s Day and why it matters

Our calendars are increasingly full of commemorative days and months, but International Women’s Day (IWD) is one of the originals, rooted in early women’s rights and socialist workers’ movements in the US and Europe. You might be surprised that the first official IWD dates back way before the social media activism era to 1911, with rallies drawing more than a million. 

Worldwide celebrations on March 8th now run the gamut from marches and panels taking on the patriarchy to dining specials, shopping promotions of female-led brands, and movies to stream with your friend squad. 

So how far have we come in more than a century? We put the question of “why do we need International Women’s Day” to our community across Asia—including women in tech, the arts, and philanthropy—to gauge what IWD means to them.

The perspectives shared below make a powerful case for why IWD is still relevant, from raising awareness about the gender gap to building global solidarity to celebrating progress made and inspiring female figures. They also underscore that tokenism won’t cut it. I’m impatient for a future when honouring women and breaking down biases become so engrained that International Women’s Day is just another day. 

Rissa Mananquil Trillo, entrepreneur and UN Women advocate

“There still isn’t a single country, no matter how progressive, that can claim to have achieved gender equality, and the pandemic has made things worse. The Global Gender Gap Report 2021 shows the estimated time needed to close the global gender gap has increased from 99.5 years to 135.6 years. With half of the lives in the world at stake, I think we can all agree that is too long a time to wait.

International Women's Day is not just for women—everyone is welcome because no matter your gender or what generation you are from, we all play a part in securing a gender-equal future. When a woman achieves, celebrate it because it paves the way for others and shapes gender attitudes and career aspirations of what women can and cannot do. Seeing is believing: if we can't look up and see women who have been successful, we are less likely to be successful ourselves.”

Angel Chan, CEO of Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations

“We celebrate this day annually to commemorate all acts of love, acts of courage, acts of sacrifices by the women around us.  We use this day to thank them, honour them, and support them. Many of their contributions are silent and never made their way to the history books. That does not mean they are in any way inferior or irrelevant.  It is also the day we remind ourselves, as women, that we deserve to be celebrated for who we are.”

See also: SCWO CEO Angel Chan on Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and Balancing Work, School, and Her Family

 

Annice Lyn, co-founder of Women Photographers Malaysia and Anntopia

“To celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, but also to mark a call to action for accelerating gender parity. As we are collectively working on championing gender equality, especially towards education and opportunity, it is also important that we keep in mind not stepping into a reverse gender inequality of oppressing men and others just to lift ourselves (women) up. 

We should learn how men can become better allies to women in support of what we do and empower fellow women by encouraging them to find strength within to start putting themselves forward. Women to women as well, in times when we may have any disagreement, instead of calling each other out (in a call-out or cancel culture), we should learn to lean in and call in and be respectful of others.”

See also: Annice Lyn on Seeking Gender Diversity and Equality in Photography 

Ines Gafsi, co-founder of Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide

“I have been in the women empowerment space for almost a decade, and I have seen IWD evolve so much over the years. It is good news it has become mainstream and every company is raising awareness about the issues women are facing and taking part in the conversation the UN leads. However, I wish that instead of just raising awareness we could collectively find solutions and implement them so we seriously have an impact, a more tangible one. Things are moving but it's still too slow. We saw the power of #MeToo; mindsets are evolving but we still have not found the way to speed things up.”

Juliana Chan, PhD, CEO, Wildtype Media Group

“I don't think a day or a month is enough to bring true equity and inclusion that professional women need at work. We intensely discuss women's issues for a few weeks and then for the next 11 months we return to the status quo. We need to keep the dialogue going all year long.” 

Low Ngai Yuen, president of Kakiseni and founder of WOMEN: Girls

“In our constant confrontation to challenge society's imbalanced/biased ways of gender equity and equality, we sometimes take for granted the privileges our foresisters have already fought for us. IWD reminds us of their past fights and also for us to invite more men (and boys) as allies. IWD is also to prep succession planning—conversations with the next generation so that they are ready to continue to trailblaze towards new breakthroughs for mindshifts.”   

See also: How Women Can Thrive in Male-Dominated Spaces

Neerja Birla, mental health advocate and founder of Aditya Birla Education Trust

“International Women’s Day is a harmonising force that brings together individual voices working on women’s issues in different countries and fields, amplifying them. It becomes a global moment, shining a spotlight on the diverse challenges that still go unseen–struggles that are unnoticed, issues that are overlooked, and achievements that go uncelebrated. This year’s theme of #BreakTheBias is especially relevant in the context of ‘seeing the unseen’.

Emotional abuse is often overlooked because the wounds are invisible. Survivors themselves begin to normalise and internalise the verbal abuse, gaslighting, and subtle patterns of behaviour that wear down their self-esteem and sense of self. It goes on to affect the mental health and wellbeing of not just women, but their children, families, communities and even their teams at work. IWD creates the necessary momentum to draw the attention of governments, corporates, brands, individuals, and the media to invisible issues like this, and to drive forward powerful, sustainable changes.” 

See also: The Longchamp GM Who Founded an NGO to Destigmatise Mental Health in the Workplace

Cynthia Cheng, co-founder Hong Kong Shifts

“I hope one day we will no longer need International Women’s Day, because it will be a day when we have truly achieved gender parity. But in the meantime, IWD is a powerful channel to raise awareness, break biases, and to celebrate and empower women across all communities—one positive change at a time. Let’s use this day to ask the right questions about what is concretely being done to #BreakTheBias, issues men are causing women, but also what other women are causing women (toxic femininity is a real thing). Read more of my perspectives on IWD here.” 

Angel Locsin-Arce, actress and philanthropist

“International Women’s Day is important. It’s a tribute to the sacrifices of all great women—in our lives, and throughout history. A reminder that we are strong, powerful, and limitless. Let’s remember how far we have come on Women’s Day. But let’s celebrate being a woman all year long and continue the fight.”

See also: Angel Locsin Gets Candid About Her Advocacies 

Kalina Tsang, director general of Oxfam Hong Kong

“On International Women’s Day, we recognise the crucial and irreplaceable role women play at all levels of society. Sadly, Oxfam has seen how discrimination, bias, and various forms of violence have kept countless women at a disadvantage and in poverty. Economic violence, for instance, exposes how sexist and racist economic systems disproportionately kill or harm people in poverty, women and girls, and racialised groups more than those who are rich and privileged. IWD is a crucial opportunity, therefore, to not only raise awareness about these inequalities, but also to amplify the voices of those experiencing and fighting them. There’s a reason why people say, ‘Educate a woman, educate a nation’—women have incredible power to be agents of change. It’s time we #BreakTheBias so women can rise above systemic inequalities and flourish.”

See also: 16 Women Fighting for Fairness in Asia

Jingjin Liu, CEO at ZaZaZu

“Twenty-eight girls a minute are being forced to marry against their will. Thirty-five per cent of women have experienced violence. Women make up 70 per cent of the health workforce but hold fewer leadership positions than men in the sector. I can go on forever.

Just look at the pandemic: it has put gender equality back, as a result of women doing significantly more domestic chores and family care. Just because we may live in a first-world country, we must not think we have reached gender parity. It’s not about individuals; it’s about women everywhere. Therefore we need to push women up as hard as we can and amplify their voices. And this is why we need IWD.”

See also: How Jingjin Liu Is Changing the Way We Talk About Sex in Asia

Proud Limpongpan, chief marketing officer at Zipmex

“As a female leader in technology, I believe that there is no better way to tackle the issues of today than through entrepreneurship. When culture allows us to redefine business practices, we will be enabled to make positive changes for the society we live in. It is time to become explicit about inclusion. Creating a gender balance is not just about hiring more women—it is about taking both an individual and a collective responsibility for our purpose and impact.

On International Women’s Day, we at Zipmex encourage the future leaders of tomorrow so that they know that success is not determined by gender, but by the willingness to go above and beyond the obstacles before us. We are proud to be a fintech company where nearly half our employees are women, many of whom are in managerial positions. Looking forward, the tech industry is en route to shaping a more balanced world, honouring women’s accomplishments and raising awareness against gender bias. This will help the sector prosper by inspiring new talent and truly making a positive impact on our society for all.”

Puja Kapai, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong

“Women around the world have long endured various forms of patriarchy, discrimination, and exclusion on account of their gender. More specifically, women who fall across other identity fault-lines by virtue of their race, caste, religion, immigrant or other statuses experience marginalisation and violence in ways unique to these intersecting identities.

International Women’s Day is a critical occasion for sharing how gender-based oppressions are systematised across state boundaries, often drawing on the same tried-and-tested strategies to subordinate women. It is crucial for expressions of solidarity and a source of empowerment for women to learn from global movement builders about how such systems have been successfully dismantled. These solidarities and partnerships bring hope that we are not alone; that change is possible and right on the horizon.”

See also: “How I Moved on From Domestic Abuse and What You Should Know About This Issue”

Mica F. Tan, co-founder and CEO of MFT Group of Companies

“History is full of female leaders who played a crucial role in developing their communities and promoting creativity. International Women's Day is an empowering way to reach social justice in modern communities.  The standards of a better future call for comparing competency, qualification, experience, capabilities and openness to development; not social status, colour or gender. International Women's Day cultivates braver, more daring leaders—this strengthens the value of courage across the globe.”

Tanah Sullivan, Group Head of Sustainability, GoTo Group

“International Women’s Day is as much about celebrating the achievements of women as it is about highlighting the enduring gaps in achieving true gender parity. The fact we continue to discuss, rather than implement, change demonstrates how far we have to go. 

Yet I am incredibly proud of the work and investments GoTo has made to implement change. Progress so far has resulted in more robust policies in stamping out potential institutional bias or discrimination in our practices, ensuring equal opportunities for growth, development, and pay. Across our ecosystem, we have launched programs focused on training and empowering our female merchant partners and on women’s safety. We will continue to integrate DEI practices, noting it remains a global challenge no one organisation or market can tackle in silo despite well-intentioned efforts.”

See also: Sharanjit Leyl on Building a World That’s Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive

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