By Christine Dickason
March 9, 2013
Caption : Today is International Women's Day, a time to reflect on women's accomplishments and the challenges ahead.     

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Today is International Women’s Day, an annual holiday to celebrate political and social achievements for women around the world and as yesterday—when President Obama signed into law the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act it not only neatly fell into line with the United Nations declared theme this year of “A Promise Is a Promise: Time for Action to End Violence Against Women,” but it also reminded us that the expansion of equality and fairness is only delivered at the end of a long and hard-fought battle. Here are some of the major wins women and their allies have fought hard for—and some of the looming challenges they'll have to see through.

First the highlights:

1. Steps were taken to reduce violence against women.

“All women deserve the right to live free from fear. That’s what today is about” said Obama, as he signed the legislation into law. Despite long partisan battles on the legislation, Congress voted to send a reauthorize of the Violence Against Women Act, originally passed in 1994, with the added protections for Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, and lesbian, transgender and bisexual women. In addition to expanding protections for more women—particularly those typically marginalized by society, the bill also included the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE), which sets national standards for how colleges respond to and report sexual assaults on campus.

2. The Affordable Care Act Improved access to health care for women—especially young women.

As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) took effect, women saw improvements to their health care in numerous areas.

A provision that took effect on last January allowed 47 million women to obtain no-cost preventative services, including contraception. The ACA eliminated gender discrimination by health insurance companies, and it advanced the reproductive-justice movement. 1.1 million young women, thanks to the ACA, are allowed them to seek or keep coverage through their parent's insurance.

3. The military took steps to ensure equality for women.

Pentagon leaders signed an order that ended the ban on women serving in combat units in early January, shattering the brass ceiling. This move is expected to open up 237,000 positions to female service members.

Even before the new order, however, the total number of active duty women in the military and Department of Defense exceeded 200,000. Thus, the passage of the Shaheen Amendment, which expanded access to affordable abortions to female service members who are victims of rape and incest, was crucial those women already serving our country.

4. There was widespread condemnation of extremist laws and comments that sought to restrict the reproductive rights of women.

Most prominently, there was a widespread failure of personhood amendments. Personhood laws failed in Arkansas, Colorado, California, Florida, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia.

Candidates who made offensive and inaccurate comments about women’s reproductive rights during the 2012 campaign season saw a backlash from constituents—specifically in the voting booths.

Yet, women still have a ways to go to gain true parity with their male counterparts. Here are a few of the many challenges:

1. The fight to ensure reproductive rights for all women is far from over.

Lawmakers enacted the second highest number of abortion restrictions in 2012 since 1985. The new year brought even more strict restrictions, including SB 134 in Arkansas. Overriding a veto by Governor Beebe, the Arkansas legislature voted Wednesday to approve the country’s most restrictive abortion bill, which bans abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

And despite voters’ overwhelming rejection of personhood amendments in 2012, some states are reintroducing similar laws, such as a new ballot initiative proposed in Mississippi this week.

2. Women are still paid less than men for equal work.

In fact, the pay gap between men and women is only getting worse. Women are making $163 less per week—a loss of earnings that, over the course of a woman’s career, amounts to almost half a million dollars.

The gender wage gap does worsen as women age. However, young women ages 25 to 34 still only make about 90 percent of what young men make. And student loans are making this issue worse–20 percent of women who get a job out of college are allocating more than 15 percent of their paycheck to pay off student debt.

There is hope that this will be addressed in the coming year, with President Obama’s call for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.

3. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty.

In 2010, 46.2 million people were living in poverty in the U.S.—of those people, adult women were almost 30 percent more likely to be living in poverty than adult men. The inequity in pay is one contributing factor to this problem, especially for women of color. Other factors include health care costs, child care and workplace discrimination.

4. The recent sequestration is especially bad for women.

The sequestration, which took effect March 1, affects many programs that invest in and support women across the country. Some of these programs include cuts to Head Start, programs to reduce violence against women, and special supplemental nutrition programs for women, infants and children. 

Head Start provides access to critical early education programs and helps low-income women balance motherhood and working responsibilities. The sequester has 70,000 children set to be cut from the program. The Violence Against Women Act programs will lose $20 million, and Family Violence Prevention Services Act programs will lose $9 million. Both are vital services for victims of domestic violence. the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children will see a $600 million cut, resulting in up to 750,000 women and children losing access to basic food services.

5. Women are underrepresented in leadership positions.

Over 49 percent of the workforce are women. Yet, women politicians comprise only 18.1 percent of the Congress, and they make up only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 company CEOs–both signs that women are being underrepresented and dis-empowered in both the public and private sector.

To learn more about International Women’s Day or to get involved, visit International Women’s Day on Facebook or follow @womensday on Twitter.

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