International Women’s Day will once again be celebrated with kudos for the fine achievements of the many women who make extraordinary contributions to their families, communities and nations. This will be followed by an assessment of the progress, or lack thereof, in improving the condition of women around the world. We will also note the heavy and sorrowful burdens that fall to women when the world suffers from strife, floods, fires, earthquakes and other disasters. We will conclude with a mixture of sadness for the conditions we seem unable change and hope for those we can.
Nearly three decades ago, two UNESCO reports on education and culture (Jacques Delors’ Learning: The Treasure Within, published in 1996, and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s Our Creative Diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, published in 1995) concluded that the key to the future lay with women who would give birth to and educate the world’s next generation, who would be capable of changing the future. This was entirely rational and seemingly reasonable. I admit that I drew hope and courage from this line of thought. I believed that the harm humans inflicted on each other and on the environment could be reversed. I admired monuments to peace and proposed that instead of – or at least in addition to – university courses focusing on wars, we study the times of peace and the periods between wars. Wars could be the interruptions to peace rather than the main focus of our attention. We also need to admire the heroic efforts of women and men to discover the genes causing cancer, to find a way to remediate the effects of acid rain and to create a vital community, for example.
While holding the key to nurturing the world’s next generation, women have suffered greatly from the ills which beset humankind. When I see lives lost in a tragic earthquake, for example, I think of those children without mothers. When I see pictures of women and children suffering from starvation, dysentery, COVID-19, or other maladies, I wonder about how they will be able protect the next generation. In her autobiographical book, The Prophet’s Camel Bell, Margaret Laurence describes that quandary well in a passage about drought in the desert and an encounter with a young woman squatting in the sand:
[H]er black headscarf smeared with dust … her face was drawn and pinched. In her hands she held an empty tin cup. She did not move at all, or ask for water. Despair keeps its own silence. Her brown robe swayed in the wind. She carried a baby slung across one hip. The child’s face was quiet, too, its head lolling in the heavy heat of the sun. We had a little water left in our spare tank, and so we stopped. She did not say a word, but she did something then which I have never been able to forget. She held the cup for the child to drink first. She was careful not to spill a drop. Afterwards, she brushed a hand lightly across the child’s mouth, then licked her palm so that no moisture would be wasted.
Ms. Laurence feels the woman’s anguish but also understands her courage and determination to keep her child alive.
This tragic scene took place in the 1950s, but similar tragedies appear daily on our televisions and computer screens, in newspapers and magazines. We need not leave the comfort of our living rooms to share the tender caring of people as they help each other face terrible difficulties.
On this International Women’s Day, I would like to celebrate all people reaching out to each other, sharing their knowledge in laboratories and classrooms; their generosity in their communities; their cup of water in the desert. It is women, women supported by others and by each other, and therefore it is the entire world that must come together to save not only that child’s life, but that child’s potential, which can only be realized with the assistance of many. May those children learn caring and generosity from others, and then go on to share what they have learned with others.
On this International Women’s Day, I celebrate women and all those who support them in making it possible to hope for the future.
Roseann O’Reilly Runte is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, an organization that invests in the research infrastructure needs of researchers at postsecondary research institutions across Canada.