International Women's Day 2023: What is the annual celebration about and when did it begin?

Diverse women cheering and holding hands against a pink background with 'Women's Day' in a calendar
So what is IWD? Photo credit: Photo illustration - Newshub; Images - Getty Images

Today is International Women's Day, a global event celebrated annually on March 8. Despite its long and varied history, the rise of social media and digital news has given International Women's Day (IWD) more prominence and a greater platform for amplifying awareness. So what is IWD?

A focal point in the women's rights movement, the annual day aims to bring attention to ongoing issues that affect women across the world: think reproductive rights, violence against women, domestic abuse, and pay and gender inequity . 

The day is designed to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, while also marking a call to action for accelerating women's equality.

What is this year's theme? 

The annual IWD campaign theme provides focus and direction for continued year-long activity. This year, the campaign theme for IWD is #EmbraceEquity. The aim is to spark discussions around why equal opportunities aren't enough, according to the International Women's Day platform. 

"The words equity and equality are often used interchangeably. Equity and equality are inherently different concepts, and the IWD 2023 #EmbraceEquity campaign theme seeks to help forge worldwide conversation about this important issue and its impact," it said.

"Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances, and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

"Equity can be defined as giving everyone what they need to be successful. In other words, it's not giving everyone the exact same thing. If we give everyone the exact same thing, expecting that will make people equal, it assumes that everyone started out in the same place - and this can be vastly inaccurate because everyone isn't the same."

When did International Women's Day begin?

IWD has occurred for well over a century. IWD was honoured for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on March 19, 1911. More than one million women and men attended rallies campaigning for women's rights to work, vote, training and to hold public office. Less than a week later on March 25, the tragic 'Triangle Fire' in New York took the lives of more than 140 working women, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants. This event drew significant attention to the working conditions and labour legislation in the United States, becoming a focal point of subsequent International Women's Day events.

In 1975, International Women's Day was recognised by the United Nations (UN) for the first time. In December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women's Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.

International Women's Day 8th March on Calendar Date - stock photo
International Women's Day is observed globally every year on March 8. Photo credit: Getty Images

In 1996, the UN announced their first annual theme, 'Celebrating the past, Planning for the Future', which was followed in 1997 with 'Women at the Peace table', in 1998 with 'Women and Human Rights', in 1999 with 'World Free of Violence Against Women', and so on.

In 2011, then-US President Barack Obama commemorated the 100-year centenary of IWD by proclaiming March 2011 as 'Women's History Month', calling on Americans to mark the occasion by reflecting on "the extraordinary accomplishments of women" in shaping the nation's history. In the United Kingdom, celebrity activist Annie Lennox led a march across one of London's iconic bridges in support of the global charity Women for Women International. The year marked the first time in history that IWD had entered the mainstream, recognised and celebrated by groups, individuals and communities across the world.  

Palm of the hand of an older woman in the sunlight with the sky in the background with the female symbol painted in purple. Concept of women's day, empowerment, equality, inequality, activism and protest. - stock photo
The campaign theme for IWD 2023 is #EmbraceEquity. Photo credit: Getty Images

What are some simple ways I can promote IWD?

Showing your support for IWD doesn't mean you need to organise a march, peaceful protest or community gathering. Joining the celebration and standing in solidarity with the cause can be as simple as sharing the event with others: whether it be through social media, your email signature, or putting up posters in your classroom or office. There are social media card templates you can download and customise, or share your own stories with the hashtags #IWD2023 and #EmbraceEquity. 

Alternatively, you could organise a motivational speaker to visit your workplace or school: in Aotearoa there are two official IWD speakers, former investigative journalist and TV host, Bonita Nuttall, and communications professional Kylie Hawker-Green.

The IWD website offers a series of educational tools and resources to help plan activities, as well as showcasing how different groups and individuals have come together to mark the day. You can find a selection of resources here.  

Crowd of diverse women holding hands with arms raised - stock photo
The day is designed to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, while also marking a call to action for accelerating women's equality. Photo credit: Getty Images

What are some charities I can donate to?

The IWD platform has several registered charities and nonprofits of choice that work for the advancement of women and girls: World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), Catalyst, Equality Now, Nomi Network, Dress for Success and Womankind Worldwide. The IWD Charity Alliance provides important funding directly to these female-focused charities.

Find out more about the charities and how to donate here.

If you're wanting to support local, there are a number of charities working to advance women's rights here in Aotearoa. Charities such as Women's Refuge, The Period Place, The Aunties, and the YWCA - there are four main centres in Christchurch, Hamilton, Whangārei, and Auckland.