Today we celebrate International Women’s Day. The past year has been difficult for women around the world.

Economically, the pandemic has mostly hit services industries, a sector dominated by female workers. The burden of caring for children, arising from school closures, has fallen squarely on mothers. Since 70 per cent of health workers and first responders are female, women have been firmly on the front line.

Notwithstanding the situation, it is still important to celebrate this day.

The late American poet and activist Maya Angelou had a life of tribulation and yet she radiated optimism and advocated positive change. Her poem Phenomenal Woman is an example of her philosophy, that we must define success on our own grounds and not be constricted by societal stereotypes.  

This message of empowerment needs to embed itself in our conciousness. We have to celebrate the achievements made so far in gender equality while continuing to push boundaries.

My hope is that 2021 will see Maltese women eliminate another major barrier – gender imbalance in parliament. The civil rights activist Al Sharpton recounts how, once, Maya joined a group intent on addressing inequality and she declared: “The first problem is you don’t have women in here of equal status. We need to correct you before you can correct the country.”

Without radical action, gender imbalance will not disappear. It is true we have had successful women politicians, but their success occured despite being women.

The late Agatha Barbara broke many barriers. Throughout her life, she faced opposition that often had little to do with what she was championing but for who she was.

In 2002, she revealed to her biographer that she had to choose between marriage and politics. She loved dancing but the moment she was elected she chose to never dance in public again. As the only woman, she felt she had to do her utmost so that those who wanted women to remain out of politics would not be given any opportunity to portray her as not befitting her office.

While things have changed, women involved in politics still face major hurdles. We are judged in ways in which men are not. Many feel that to choose politics means to lose their feminity. This is why our country remains in 146th place globally in terms of the proportion of parliamentary members who are women.

Many feel that to choose politics means to lose their feminity

Many will retort that we cannot be like Sweden as they are more economically advanced. In truth, the country with the highest female parliamentary representation in the world is Rwanda. Second is Cuba and then Bolivia. Poor countries can still choose gender balance.

In just a few years, thanks to measures such as free childcare and the tapering of social benefits, our country has moved from an employment rate of young women 10 percentage points below the European average to being one percentage point above.

In 2018, for the first time, the proportion of Maltese women engaged in executive level positions reached the EU average. A year later, Maltese women reached the European average in terms of the proportion with tertiary education. Whereas in 2012 75 per cent of single parents were dependent on social assistance, this has fallen to 33 per cent.

All this shows that even seemingly unsurmountable gaps can be closed if there is political willingness. If there were gender balance in parliament, we would be able to better address issues that disproportionately affect women.

For instance, will women for whom we have provided the option of childcare soon have to drop out of the labour force to care for their elderly relatives? Are we doing enough to ensure that in the case of divorce or separation, particularly in older years, women do not end up without pension entitlements since they formed part of a one-earner household? Why are we condoning a situation where those working multiple part-time jobs, mostly women, end up being provided benefit coverage for just one job?

Are we aware that of the 300 graduates in information technology every year, only 50 are women? Could this lead to a gender digital divide that widens the pay gap?

These, and other issues, would be better addressed if there were more female parliamentarians driving change.

Michelle Obama said: “Like I tell my daughters, women and girls can do whatever they want... there’s no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.”

Women can truly be remarkable.  

Lydia Abela, lawyer and wife of the prime minister

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