As We Remember the March on Washington, the Journey Toward Universal Equality Presses On

March on Washington

Worldwide, there is consensus that a few names stand out as game-changers in the fight for equality. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the front-runners among those names. Today, as we remember the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we think of many of the dreams we were inspired to achieve as a result of King’s call to the world.  And we’ve made considerable progress.

But equality has been and will continue to be elusive if we don’t stretch our expectations of what it means to be equal in the world. During a commemoration event on Saturday, Martin Luther King Jr.’s oldest son said, “This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration. Nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.” 

Equality has been and will continue to be elusive if we don’t stretch our expectations of what it means to be equal in the world.

Most of us could not agree more. People continue to suffer around the world due to race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, ethnic background, caste, and many other entrenched social and cultural parameters. In our own field, we see the tragic effects of how inequality denies women the access to life-saving and life-shaping health services. This inequality also exposes women to unnecessary risks that could be prevented given freedom to make their own decisions about sexual and reproductive health. 

I was horrified and saddened to recently read about the rape of a young photojournalist in my hometown, Mumbai, a place where I felt quite safe as a young woman. But the numerous incidents of rape that continue shamelessly throughout India are telling, despite the amazingly strong community outcry and rallying in the face of the rape of a young woman in Delhi last December. Tragically, the world continues to see this as one more statistic and moves on. Can we speak of equality to this young photojournalist who was only doing her job—admittedly a job that few women would have been allowed to do 50 years ago?

At this year’s Women Deliver conference, I was asked how I would define “equality” and I talked of the universal ability to have the same access, the same opportunities, the same rights. Now, however, I am beginning to wonder how the new generation is defining gender equality. To me, at its core, equality means treating all with the same respect and dignity. Simply put, equality means treating everyone the way you would want to be treated. 

To echo words from this generations’ rally for greater equality, “We can and we must do more.

This week, there have been many reactions to the performance of a young female singer who, at a recent awards ceremony pawed the male singer who was singing with her on stage using a foam finger glove. Her performance raised many eyebrows and elicited extensive reactions (far too many, perhaps giving her perhaps exactly what she wanted —attention). The performance made me think that, perhaps, we are missing the essence of equality. If we want to be respected, we have to treat others with respect too. I doubt the female singer would have wanted to be treated in the same fashion, as a sex object, to be touched inappropriately on stage or otherwise by anybody. 

To see a potentially effective role model, with a wonderful talent, destroying this essence of equality and at the other end, hearing of the gang-rape in Mumbai, was for me, a tragic recognition that we still have a long journey toward ensuring gender equality and getting it right. To echo words from this generations’ rally for greater equality, “We can and we must do more.”

Purnima Mane

Purnima Mane is the Former President and Chief Executive Officer of Pathfinder. She is a distinguished diplomat, leader, manager, academician, and social activist, as well as an internationally recognized expert on HIV, maternal health, behavior change, gender, and population.

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