I asked some inspirational women, Christian leaders from all areas of life, to share either a few thoughts on what this day means to them or on the issue that is close to their heart that they would like to highlight on International Women's Day. Please read through their thoughts reflectively. There's a lot to take in – and some of what is said may inspire you to make a difference yourself on one of these issues.
Michele Guinness, author, speaker, journalist and communications trainer
Say the word 'woman leader' to virtually any group of Christians in the UK, and they'll automatically assume church leader. But surely ordination or ministerial position doesn't have the monopoly on female leadership? What about the head teachers, nursing directors, medical consultants, businesswomen, senior managers and academics, directors of companies, politicians and scientists whose faith and guts have propelled them through the glass ceiling, overcoming prejudice, plain invisibility and the juggling at home to get where they are in the secular world? These unrecognised heroines of the Christian world then encounter 'churchy discrimination', the disinterest of the sacred-secular divide that doesn't appreciate the untapped resources in the pew and won't allow for the occasional transition from boardroom to pulpit. So today, let's bridge that chasm and give a cheer for them, celebrate their achievements and learn from their wisdom.
Chine Mbubaegbu, Head of Media & Communications, Evangelical Alliance and author of 'Am I Beautiful?'
International Women's Day always reminds me of the amazing gifts and talents of the women around me. My female friendships are the most important to me – times of sharing life together, crying together, laughing together and inspiring each other to be world-changers. But it's also a reminder to me that there's a long way to go before women are seen as equal in every area of society: issues like domestic violence, female genital mutilation and even the pressures on women to look a certain way remind me that the world is broken and not how God intended it to be. It's a day for me to champion the work of women – and men – working for change in all these areas.
Dr Bex Lewis, Research Fellow in Social Media and Online Learning
I love the fact that International Women's Day has been held since the early 20th century, and that we can look back upon many years of inspiring change – we don't have to start from a blank sheet – but there is still more that we can do. There are other issues of inequality, but having travelled around the world, working in the digital sector, and having got involved in the speaker circuit (this is one area where I particularly see a need for mentoring schemes), despite huge gains, there's more awareness of culturally ingrained attitudes (which affect actions) that need addressing. I never particularly sought out a role in leadership, but I've been inspired by many great women ahead of me, and hope that I can inspire others who are on the journey with me.
Rachel Gardner, President of the Girls' Brigade and bestselling author or 'Cherished; boys, bodies & becoming a girl of gold'
Modern western society is not always good news for girls. There seems to be a constant barrage of messages telling girls to conform to damaging ideals and perform in damaging ways. Navigating a safe way through can be tricky at best and terrifying at worst. This International Women's Day I'm going to be championing some of the churches and organisations that work tirelessly to present girls with a robust vision of life in all its fullness, inspiring them to be the thinking, fearless and compassionate leaders they all have the potential to become. First on my list will be Girls' Brigade!
Natalie Collins, founder of Spark, independent consultant working to prevent violence against women, and the creator of DAY
International Women's Day is important to me on so many levels. As a professional working to address gender injustice both in and outside of the Church it is a great opportunity to raise the issue of male violence against women and the wider forms of injustice women face. As a woman who has experienced male violence it is a time to celebrate the freedom I now have, and as a mother, it is an important day to show my children that women are people too, in world where women are devalued, demeaned and degraded in every community in the world.
Mandy Marshall, Co-Director, Restored
IWD is a time to focus, reflect, celebrate and recommit to ensuring equality between women and men. Celebrate the achievements and progress that has been made on women's rights and equality around the world yet focus on what still need to be done and sadly, in some cases, where women's rights and freedoms are being regressed, such as in Afghanistan.
The prevalence and incidence of violence against women is a huge inhibitor to progress in achieving equality. It's in our churches too. An EU report released this week stated that 44% of women in the UK had suffered physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. Furthermore 68% had suffered sexual harassment. If we are to see progress we cannot ignore the extent of violence against women. It fundamentally undermines reaching equality as VAW at its heart is an abuse of power.
There is still a long way to go to reach equality between women and men. More men are joining in the cause recognising the world their wives, daughters and friends are struggling in. More men are needed to challenge the unequal power dynamics that operate in our cultures and societies to bring about a systemic change. Restored's First Man Standing campaign, in conjunction with Christian Vision for Men, asks men to make a positive stand to end violence against women starting with respecting all women.
This IWD my prayer is that more Christians, churches and Christian men make a stand to end violence against women and use the influence and power they have to bring about positive change.
Kay Morgan-Gurr, National Director of Children Worldwide, Disability and Additional Needs adviser
According to the UN: 'Women with disabilities are recognised to be multiply disadvantaged, experiencing exclusion on account of their gender and their disability.' Apparently they are also more likely to be abused and less likely to be educated, and yet they make up a sizeable proportion of the global population. But in the west, it appears they are largely invisible.
I am a woman in leadership, and I am disabled. Many say that I am less likely to be listened to as a woman in leadership. I do experience this, BUT I do find that I am often overlooked (sometimes literally!) and ignored even more because of my disability. It's a tough world for women – it's even tougher for women with disabilities.
Henrietta Blyth, Tearfund's Organisational Development Director
I worry that half of the people the Lord wants to use for his purposes are effectively walking around with our hands tied behind our backs because we have often been denied the opportunity to lead, even with the best of intentions.This International Women's Day I'll be praying for opportunities for women all around the world, and particularly for the many women who experience violence and exploitation.
Natasha Rufus Isaacs, co-founder of Beulah London
We thought slavery was abolished by Wilberforce in 1833, but the reality is that almost 30 million people are held in slavery today. Beulah was founded with a vision to empower women who have been trafficked by providing an alternative, sustainable livelihood. International Women's Day is a reminder to us to keep fighting slavery and injustice and make a positive difference in the world.
Reverend Sally Hitchiner, Senior Chaplain and Interfaith Adviser at Brunel University, London
The consequences of educating girls and women to the same level as boys and men are almost limitless. In societies where this has happened the economy is boosted, family life is stronger and violence decreases. Enabling women to access theological education empowers the church to have a greater perspective of the God in whose image we are made. To deny education or to be lethargic in removing the obstacles to it for half the world's population is one of the greatest evils of our time.
Dr Ann-Marie Wilson, Founder/Executive Director of 28 Too Many
Globally more than 125 million women have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), an estimated 3 million girls in Africa are at risk and shockingly more than 24,000 girls in the UK are also at risk. FGM is a devastating practice resulting in serious physical and emotional harm. Some girls die as a result of FGM and it also increases maternal and infant mortality rates.
On International Women's Day I will be joining with volunteers from 28 Too Many and many others to celebrate women worldwide, highlight gender inequality and raise awareness of violence against women including FGM and other harmful traditional practices. IWD is an important opportunity for people in different countries and from all walks of life to come together and campaign together for a better world where girls and women can fulfil their potential. It is easy to feel isolated and powerless, especially against a deeply entrenched and ancient practice like FGM, but when we stand together we can bring about change and make the world a better place for everyone.
I have just returned to the UK after visiting East Africa and I have seen first-hand that change is taking place. Women and men are increasingly choosing not to cut their daughters. We all need to support them and ensure ours is the generation that acts to end FGM. We can act as individuals, as part of a campaign or through our churches – the important thing is to add your voice.
Charlie Davies, designer and missionary, www.saheldesign.com
Women in the Sahel have always worked incredibly hard to take care of their families, with little financial reward. Every day, millet is pounded by hand and cooked over a fire to make porridge for the family. In Burkina Faso the average number of children per woman is about six. It is wonderful to see the women who weave leather for SAHEL Design becoming financially independent for the first time. Now their children are going to school, they wear silver jewellery and there is a new water pump being installed this year. There is even talk of buying a millet grinding machine. The future looks promising.
Celia Bowring, Operations Director, CARE
On IWD I want to mention the need for effective legislation to support and protect survivors of human trafficking for sexual exploitation – especially children. At CARE we are working closely with MPs and Peers prior to the publication of the Government Modern Slavery Bill, as well as Lord Morrows' Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill going through the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Our main point is the need for children in this situation to have a guardian figure to represent them before all the different agencies and ensure they have proper care and protection. (A third of rescued children disappear from local authority care – tracked down by their traffickers and pimps.)
Katherine Baldwin, journalist, writer and blogger
Women around the world face so many challenges – physical, social, economic, political and so forth – but what I'm particularly passionate about is what's happening on the inside and how that relates to what happens on the outside. Poor self-worth and low self-esteem – often the result of difficult childhoods or traumatic early experiences – lead too many women into self-harming behaviours around food, body and weight, alcohol and drugs, work and achievement and around men and sex.
My wish for this IWD is that women and girls everywhere would know their true value and worth and be given the tools and support to act always in their best interests, instead of against them. My wish is that we would all learn to love ourselves, so that we can receive love and learn to love others. I believe that by changing ourselves on the inside, we inspire change all around us.
Arianna Walker, Executive Director, Mercy Ministries UK
I think we need to celebrate the fact that, while there's still great inroads to be made for women around the world, we have come far. Every day at Mercy Ministries UK, we see and celebrate the courage, tenacity and resilience of young women who are determined to make a change in their lives for the better – who are fully committed to reaching their goals of emotional, physical and spiritual health. The women I see are not allowing their past to determine their future, nor are they satisfied with simply existing. These women inspire me and fill me with hope for the future - hope that we are part of a generation of women that are rising up and being the change they want to see and in doing so, ringing in a change that affects us all.
Dr Ruth Valerio, Churches and Theology Director, A Rocha UK
"I'd like IWD to be a day when we celebrate the role of women in producing our food. Did you know that 60–80% of food in most developing countries is grown and/or processed by women and that women are the main producers of the world's staple crops (rice, wheat and maize)? And yet, shockingly, they only own 2% of the world's land. Let's give thanks today for the women around the world who grow our food and use that to remind us to be mindful of each mouthful that we eat".