#IWD2021: Not even International Women’s Day gives women reprieve from exploitation

There is going to be fanfare. A barrage of garishly pink flyers will litter all our timelines, accompanied by ill-thought out copies and disastrous emails. It has happened before, and like clockwork it is happening again this year as brands and businesses come out to celebrate International Women’s Day.

While all of this is happening, an overworked female intern that is responsible for the bulk of the work is likely fending off sexual harassment from bosses who will most benefit from the brand positioning that this exercise in signalling will bring.

When the United Nations (UN) invited member states to proclaim March 8 the official UN International Women’s Day in 1977 – essentially catching up over 50 years after the first iteration of the day’s celebration in 1917 Soviet Russia, the aim was simple and powerful – women’s rights and world peace.

In commemorating this day therefore, one will think that the conversations we have will always be about the milestones attained and the way forward for a gender-equal world. Not remind us of the old fashioned and dying straitjacket of gender roles the way brands have done in Nigeria in recent times.

“Serving shouldn’t just be a kitchen affair,” read a flyer in celebration of International Women’s Day. The overt sexism in that statement will be painful on any other day. It is doubly so on a day whose very significance is to challenge sexism and discrimination against women.

Campaigns of that nature attract outrage from well-meaning people, and rightly so. Outrage builds engagement and expands reach. This outrage rarely, however, if at all results in introspection by these brands and efforts to do better. This cannot be a mistake, because come another International Women’s Day  the cycle will be spun anew.

It raises a number of questions – perhaps the ones that brands should be answering with their campaign in place of the god-awful signalling that does nothing for women, what is your brand’s inclusion policy? What percentage of your staff is female? What percentage of key positions in your establishment is occupied by women? How stringent are you about ensuring a safe work space for women in your employ?

The answers to these questions are more helpful than any campaign no matter how growlingly perfect. Not only will it show us where we are and the way forward, it also has the potential to reveal one thing everyone in the know suspects; that these campaigns are conceived by, for, and to appeal to the gaze of men.

And it works too, because when men in high places write off a funding for gender inclusion to other men in high places they nod in smug satisfaction at the very campaigns women know to be a disgrace at best.

It is as if women are used for clicks and engagement even on the day reserved to bring awareness to how they are exploited and discriminated against to boot.

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