Men and women everywhere work for a more just and fair world. Governments and politicians do it, and they win or lose elections based on their opinions and abilities to fulfill promises and policies. Civil society organizations and various interest groups do it, funded by their members, or the public or private sectors. Issues change over time and from one geographic area to another. Topics vary based on trends and fashions and what leaders and people put on the agenda. Economic reasons play a major role in what we prioritize, and so do religious and cultural traditions, beliefs and values. On the global arena, the United Nations and other international organizations play major roles in putting issues on the agenda, but the UN also relies on its members to take up issues. Many important issues only reach the international agenda after a long time, and other issues are on the waiting list forever.

International Women’s Day, which is marked on 8 March, became a United Nations Day in 1977, and many countries, as well as Pakistan, have other days to focus on gender equality. When the UN day was created, women had worked for greater equality for a very, very long time. More than a hundred years ago, women in the West began to advocate for women having the same rights as men in public life, and in the economic, social and political fields. In 1910, the Danish social democratic party’s women’s congress decided to establish an annual women’s day, and it was marked in many countries from the next year. Women’s right to vote was the main topic, and in most countries in the West, women achieved that basic right in the second decade of the century. During the First World War, 1914-1918, the fight for peace was top of the agenda. Later, health issues, social and family issues, including family planning, were given attention, as well as labour issues for women and men. After the Second World War, when more women joined the formal labour force, labour issues and social issues remained central.

Even in the more advanced countries, women still earn less than men, yes, sometimes even for the same work, and pay in typical ‘women jobs’ is lower than in sectors where there are only men, or a majority of men. There is still a long way to go in most countries to reach gender equality in the working life, indeed as pertains to women in leadership posts in the private sector. This is also the case in Scandinavia, the model countries for modern gender equality, where women do well in politics and the public sector.

In education, which is the key to social mobility, there is less disparity, and women often do better than men at exams, also at university. In many countries, women outnumber men in higher education. In Iran, for example, over sixty percent of university students are women; in Pakistan, about forty percent, but it varies from university to university and levels of studies. It should be added that illiteracy among women is high, and the majority of out-of-school children in primary education are girls, especially in remote rural areas. Gender equality in education should be given top priority. Also, quality education for all children, also poor boys and girls in rural as well as urban areas, should be given priority. This will lead to greater equality for adult women and men, and in turn, educated women will ascertain that their children receive education, and the whole families will do better.

In the West, including my home country Norway, and in most countries in the world, the International Women’s Day became particularly important in the 1970s. Today, the public manifestations in way of mass rallies and waving of banners and more or less militant slogans have declined. And in Norway, many probably feel that they ‘have landed’, that they have reached close to optimal gender equality. Although this is not quite the case, there is good reason to celebrate the many achievements.

Now, International Women’s Day could be a day for showing solidarity with women elsewhere in the world, especially in the developing countries, where work for greater gender and class equality are the most important human rights issues.

In the multicultural West, where many immigrants have arrived in the last generation or two, it is important to support the newcomers, men and women, so that they can find their ways into the more ‘gender neutral’ societies. For men and women in the West, there are also opportunities to learn from immigrants and question some of the outcomes of the new standards and norms in our time. For example, when both parents work outside the home, even when the children are small, life becomes very hectic and stressful for all. Hence, the optimal model for the ‘good life’ has not yet been found.

Violence against women is a worldwide problem. In the West, especially among educated and economically independent women, it is less prevalent. The ways we choose our spouse, change partners or live alone, have changed in our time – but not all new things are good. Decisions are made by the partners themselves, and women have a greater say than ever about when and whom to marry; that also applies to countries where marriage is as much an arrangement between families as just between individuals.

When I was young in Norway in the 1960s and 1970s, a great deal of stigma was attached to unwanted pregnancies and divorce. At secondary school, I remember that a classmate who became pregnant dropped out from one day to the next, and we never spoke about it. At primary school, there was a girl in my class whose parents were divorced. The indirect message we received from the other children and the community was that this was bad, and that we should stay a bit away from her and her brother in another class. Today, many children grow up in families with one parent only, usually the mother, and there is little stigma attached to that.

In the future, I hope everyone can find ways of living more peacefully together, and that we will use less force, including physical and non-physical violence against those who are weaker. This applies to many fields in society, not only gender relations. I believe we in recent decades have made progress, yet, our world has also become more competitive and harder. The way we react to the ‘war on terror’ is often wrong, working contrary to our efforts of creating more peaceful and harmonious societies.

Dear reader, may I congratulate you all on this year’s International Women’s Day. I hope women and men everywhere will find better ways of living together, following international standards, adjusted to local standards and exchange of ideas and experience. Everywhere, a more just life for women also leads to a better and happier life for men. Similarly, greater economic equality leads to a better life also for the wealthy. Yes, in all fields, the oppressed gain from less oppression, but so do the oppressors.