Penn Global Centers Celebrates International Women's Day

Grace Gallagher and Maria Johansson, for GPA -- International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated every year on March 8. This year, the day was especially important as it marked the 70th anniversary of the creation of the United Nations and the 20th anniversary since its fourth World Conference on Women. The latter was a historic event that garnered 189 signatures from governments around the world on a document that would act as a roadmap for realizing women’s rights. 2015’s theme was much in line with that conference in Beijing: bold action, with a focus on sustainability.

Philadelphia is full of interesting and successful women and IWD was celebrated all across the city. On March 4, the Penn Global Centers (South Asia Center, Center for East Asian Studies, Middle East Center and Africa Center) hosted its yearly IWD event at International House Philadelphia (3701 Chestnut St.).

The event started off with a great performance by the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir, the first and longest running feminist choir in the United States. They performed three songs, one of which was inspired by Malala Yousafzai and the speech she gave at the UN.

Next, a panel of very impressive women, all of whom were involved in an aspect of immigration, spoke about their work and answered questions from moderator Fariha Khan as well as the audience. The topics ranged from the difficulties of filling out immigration forms, to the stigma amongst undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Ayodele Gansallo, a senior staff attorney with HIAS Pennsylvania, spoke of the similarities between women around the world. She highlighted the vulnerability of immigrant women who are dependent on their husbands for their immigration status and discussed the problem of domestic abuse, which “pervades many different cultures.”

Gansallo also spoke about the importance of gaining immigrant status for women and how such a status is a tool of empowerment, freedom and protection. Shamaine Daniels, a Harrisburg attorney and the first immigrant to be elected to sit on the Harrisburg City Council, built on this idea, stating that “removing the barriers of self-realization for women helps improve their situation.”

Silvia Huerta, a young native of Mexico who works closely with the undocumented communities in New Jersey and Philadelphia, explained that the stigma associated with undocumented immigrants is so great that this group of people often foregoes healthcare and education out of fear of deportation and admitting their lack of status. This fear may be traced back to the media, the panel suggested, which often paints the picture of the “bad immigrant” or the “good immigrant,” when the reality is not that black or white.

It is important, said co-founder and organizer of the 1Love Movement Mia-Lia Kiernan, that we try to find the root cause of why people migrate in the first place. The motivation for braving treacherous seas and miles and miles of deserts for a chance at living in America must originate somewhere, she said. It is not a trip decided upon lightly.

Overall, the panel agreed that being an immigrant presents many challenges unique to women, both financial and social. On the bright side, Philadelphia seems to understand the value of its immigrants. “It is certainly a city that is trying,” said Gansallo.

While there are still gaps in gender equality, and the goal of offering equal opportunities for immigrants of all genders is still out of reach, things are getting better. Women in all walks of life, from the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir to state attorneys, are joining forces. Perhaps in a few years, IWD will simply be a celebration of equality and no longer a rallying cry for equal rights. But until then, we need people like those involved in IWD to continue pushing policies and motivating global change.

Image courtesy of UN Women.