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International Women's Day 2012 profiles of exceptional impact and achievement

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Parker also took President Barack Obama to task in a recent appearance on a SiriusXM radio show, when she challenged his position on the issue. Obama does support civil unions between gay and lesbian couples and says he’s “evolving” on the idea of marriage, but Parker said the President needs to “evolve a little faster”.

While she may not be the only lesbian mayor in the States, Parker’s determination and her strong leadership in such a major Texas city is seen as an inspiration to other aspiring politicians in the LGBTQ community.

Finally, it's important to remember that the world suffered a great loss this year with the death of Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai, an inspirational Kenyan woman who broke many glass ceilings in her life.   Maathai was the first woman in all of East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, achieving her PhD. in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971. In addition to becoming the first female professor at the university, she went on to create the groundbreaking Green Belt Movement—a grassroots, community-based organization that began engaging women and girls in planting trees as a way to address key challenges like deforestation, soil erosion and even poverty.

The group has planted over 40 million trees across Africa, and has made significant contributions to communities by improving degraded ecosystems and empowering people in poverty.

In the 1980s and 90s, the GBM also stepped up to join pro-democracy efforts trying to put an end to Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi’s dictatorial regime. Maathai and her colleagues suffered abuse and even imprisonment during their campaign against the regime. But her courage and drive paid off. After Kenya’s first democratic elections in 2002, Maathai became a Member of Parliament and was later appointed Deputy Minister for the Environment.

Before her passing, Maathai was recognized worldwide for her work in environmental and political advocacy. She appeared on “Top 100” lists of influential people from Time Magazine, Forbes, the UK Environment Agency and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). And in 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

She passed away in September 2011 in Nairobi, after a long and difficult battle with cancer and is survived by two children.

How far have we come?

These women represent huge strides forward but despite the great achievements of such inspirational individuals, women all over the world are still facing major challenges.

Women and children make up 70 per cent of the 1.5 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day. International gender-wage ratios have not improved much since 20 years ago. And according to the 2011 20-first Global Gender Balance Scorecard, females make up just 10% of the executive committees in Top 100 companies from Europe, North America and Asia. Even in the media, women are still routinely being shut out of higher-ranking positions.

Add to that the startling level of violence against women worldwide, and it’s not a  pretty picture. One in four North American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. And in places like Africa, the statistics are even more frightening. For instance, reports say over 400,000 women are raped in the Congo every year.

So how does Canada stack up?

In terms of violence, the numbers are  troubling. Statistics show that on average, every six days there’s another Canadian woman murdered by an intimate partner. Over 3,000 women live in emergency shelters to escape abuse, and about half of all women over the age of 16 have experienced some type of physical or sexual violence.

Though its true that crime rates have dropped over the past decade, rates of domestic violence have flat-lined in the past few years. And as mentioned earlier, First Nations women are victimized at a much higher rate than others. As of 2010, there were almost 600 known cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women, prompting the United Nations and Amnesty International to call on the Canadian government to right these wrongs.

In the workplace, women in Canada consistently struggle with income disparities compared to men of the same education level. As a whole they are less likely to end up in top positions in big business or government. Just look at the current federal cabinet: out of 39 members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ministry, only 10 are female.

Despite increasing awareness and charitable work to help confront women’s issues and gender inequality, it seems we’re at somewhat of a standstill. But that doesn’t mean progress won’t be made—it’s simply going to take more action, more determination, and more outstanding female leaders to help pave the way.

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