A long road travelled, a long way still to go

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2006, 12:00am

International Women's Day does not have quite the cachet of Mother's Day in our society. The commercialisation of the latter helps see to that.

Women's Day is just one of 60 international days marked by the United Nations to honour or raise awareness about groups of people or issues ranging from migrants to tolerance.

It is a day for reflecting that despite some progress, women (and children) around the world still suffer from domestic violence, poverty, armed conflict and Aids, to name a few issues. It is a time when feminists and women's rights campaigners recall battles won and rally supporters for fights still to be fought.

However, it is perhaps also a time to reflect how the achievements of the women's movement may have been good for the social institutions that underpin Mother's Day - marriage and family.

Such a concept turns on its head conventional feminist wisdom of 30-odd years ago, when Germaine Greer famously branded marriage 'a legalised form of slavery' for women. Men dominated political and economic power. Women identified marriage with financial dependency on a man that was hard to escape. One way to avoid this male dominance was to reject marriage.

Nowadays, greater equality between men and women is reflected in greater equality between wives and husbands. Family researchers argue that thanks to the women's movement, women have achieved greater independence by earning more, not by avoiding marriage.

If female empowerment has been good in this way for marriage, the example may be extended to families.

British experience shows that more than twice as many children born within a marriage can expect to be living with both natural parents when they are 16, compared with children born into a relationship where mother and father live together without getting married.

Given that a woman is usually left holding the baby after a relationship ends, and that a father who never married is less likely to pay child support, the greater fragility of cohabitation arrangements may now be more likely to result in the domestic 'slavery' that women fought to escape.

Hong Kong has its own marriage and family worries - a large estimated surplus of never-married women over never-married men in the 20-44 and 25-49 age groups respectively, the lowest birth rate in the world at 0.9 children per woman, and a rapidly ageing population that will bring its own problems in the future. Young people are increasingly putting financial security before marriage and lifestyle ahead of more than one child.

As a city of affluence and property, we can't look to warriors for women's rights to fix all that. But we can afford time on International Women's Day to reflect on innocent victims of suffering, of whom a disproportionate number are women and children.