HALIFAX -- The very first International Women's Day was marked back in 1911, with rallies attended by more than one million people around the world.

Today, 109 years later, the COVID-19 pandemic means there have been no large gatherings to mark the occasion. Women have still raised their voices in a conversation around, not only the progress that has been made over the past century, but also around the work that still needs to be done.

For entrepreneur Cathy Akinkunmi, this International Women's Day is more special than ever, because she is celebrating it just two months after launching her latest business, giving it extra meaning.

"Because I felt this year, I have something that I've been wanting to do," says Akinkunmi, "something … empowering."

That "something" is her own brick-and-mortar lifestyle store called Eunoia. Akinkunmi opened her doors during the ongoing pandemic, a challenge she felt she had to take on despite any systemic roadblocks.

"For me it's like a double-whammy," she says, "I'm a minority, I'm an immigrant, I'm Black, I'm a woman, so all the stakes are kind of stacked. Every time you must do a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more."

She says it's been "quite a journey," but she has found people are becoming more open to talking about the obstacles BIPOC women face, ever since the Black Lives Matter movement erupted last year.

"Not talking about it is worse," she says, "acknowledging that … people reaching out to you, it's really been refreshing."

As an entrepreneur, she's now giving back and acting as a mentor to others like her who want to start their own business.

"I wanted to be a role model," she says, "to say that you can do it, you can show up, you can participate."

That drive to contribute is something Ifeoma Esonwune encourages all women to pursue.

Esonwune is the founder and CEO of the Network for the Empowerment of Women, a training and leadership organization which helps women turn their passions into business opportunities.
She says part of the battle for women lies within, in overcoming self-doubt and self-criticism, but the bigger fight is against systemic gender inequality.

"The social norm should be that realization that women are capable. Gender equality for me is a must, it's something that the world has to recognize."

Results from a new poll released today suggest most Canadians believe there is still a long way to go when it comes to achieving gender equality.

Seventy-three per cent of Canadian women who responded to the survey conducted by conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies, said equality has not been reached.
The same amount said they believe men still get paid more than women for doing the same job.

In addition, the annual report card on gender diversity and leadership by the non-profit, The Prosperity Project, found most of Canada's largest companies have no Black or Indigenous women in line for executive roles.

Esonwune says that needs to change.

"Women aren't fighting to take over," she says, "we're just asking for equal representation, to be part of what's happening, to be part of the change."

For lawyer, Dalhousie University associate professor, and Mi'kmaq educator Patti Doyle-Bedwell, the push for gender equality cannot exist without racial justice in Canada.

She says the tragic legacy of the residential school system and the continuing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada are truths that must be understood.

"If (Canadians) don't know the truth of what happened to us, the cultural genocide, the impact of the Indian Act, if people aren't aware of those things," she says, "then it's going to be very hard to move forward."

Doyle-Bedwell says there needs to be more education in schools about the history and struggles of Indigenous people in Canada.

She hopes truth and reconciliation can happen in her lifetime but says there is a way to go.

"I think that part of the difficulty is that there isn't a strong political will to make those changes," she says.

Ifeoma Esonwune agrees while a lot of progress has been made, it's important for women and men alike to continue to eradicate the barriers to gender equality.  

"I think we deserve that."