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100 years of struggling to win justice for women

Despite a century of change, finds Susie Mesure, we are still striving for true sexual equality across the globe

One hundred years ago next Saturday, 15,000 female garment workers took to the streets of Manhattan with a list of demands longer than the empire dresses then fashionable. From better working conditions to equal pay, childcare centres and the right to vote, the striking workers wanted to be allowed to live the same lives enjoyed by their male counterparts.

That mass protest, on 8 March 1908, and the many others that were to follow, helped pave the way for a century of change that saw women get the vote and could yet see the first woman elected President of the United States.

To mark the centenary of that struggle, which is remembered each year on International Women's Day, The Independent on Sunday has looked at how far women's rights have come in three very different countries in three very different parts of the world. To call the picture mixed is something of an understatement: in the UK, we can rightly hail the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act 33 years ago, yet in India barely 10 per cent of elected members to the upper house of parliament are women.

Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam, summed up the paradox still facing our sisters in the developing world: "Women are now playing a stronger role in developing societies than ever before. The representation of women at the very highest level in national parliaments, in business and in labour organisations such as unions has vastly increased. But nearly 100 years on from the first International Women's Day, it defies belief that so many women across the developing world are still facing some of the fundamental historical challenges that have held women back for centuries."

In Malawi, nearly three-quarters of the country's full-time farmers are women, and mothers are still burying one in 10 of their babies. Indeed, maternal ill-health is one of the biggest battles remaining to be fought around the world. The scale of the crisis is exposed today in a new report from an influential parliamentary select committee, claiming that up to one million pregnant women die every year from largely avoidable causes, nearly double the previous estimate.

Malcolm Bruce, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the International Development Committee, said it was "a shameful disgrace and a personal tragedy for millions of families in the developing world" that there had been little progress in reducing maternal deaths in the past 20 years. While Mr Bruce blamed a lack of global political will, prominent voices in the women's movement are more pointed in their criticism.

Bidisha, contributing editor of the feminist magazine Sibyl, said: "The challenge we face is that women are still hated.... We must continue to fight machismo, bigotry and abuse."

And Dr Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between the sexes, added: "History shows us that trying to shoehorn women into systems designed by men for men doesn't work."

A UK study last week showed that new mothers returning to work often find themselves swapping career status for flexibility in the form of part-time jobs. Just one-third of working mothers with pre-school children are employed full-time, compared with 85 per cent of childless women.

Martha Nussbaum, the author of Sex and Social Justice, said: "In most nations of the world, women face unequal education and employment opportunities, and have unequal political power. Whether another century of striving for equality will finally hand victory to women remains to be seen."

Additional reporting by Ian Griggs, Nina Lakhani and Kate Youde