Muza Gondwe: No more days left in the world calendar

Muza Gondwe“Counting Malaria Out” is not the most inspiring of themes for the third World Malaria Day that took place on the 25th of April. It is another day to add onto the growing list of internationally recognised health days which by my calculation can exceed 24 internationally observed days in one month, for example in October. Some months have days with competing events, for example 21st March, which is International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, World Down Syndrome Day and World Poetry Day. In addition there are awareness weeks like Disarmament Week, October 24-30, and also months, for example Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. There are themed years like the Year of Astronomy in 2009, and even decades such as the First International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People 1995 – 2004. This makes for quite a hectic schedule. These periods of time are meant to increase awareness, raise funds, be a time of remembrance, and offer information and support on various issues of international concern. They are not just limited to health topics. But by having so many do they lose their significance?

Have you ever wondered why particular days are chosen? How do these days become internationally observed? And what happens after the events of the day are said and done? World AIDS Day, 1st December comes to my mind in particular.  Having personally witnessed the devastating scourge of this epidemic, every 1st December, I solemnly adorn a red ribbon, I remember those we lost, pray for those still with us and hope for a better future. The 1st of December was specifically chosen by the World Health Organization in 1998 because it was “a dead spot in the news calendar.” The day could receive international media coverage as it would not be overshadowed by the 1998 US Elections or Christmas. 

Many of the internationally observed periods have been established by the United Nations General Assembly or United Nation Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). According to the UNESCO website, there is no formal procedure to proclaim a day, it is dependent on the internal regulations of the governing agencies. Days can be proclaimed and then endorsed by the UN General Assembly after evaluation by intergovernmental panels and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) but this is not mandatory. They do however note the following “While no guidelines exist, caution should be exercised to avoid the designation of international days except on the most important and relevant issues, while taking into account the high number of such days already in the calendar.” 

Unfortunately internet searches I carried out have not precisely revealed which is the first internationally observed day but it could possibly be Human Rights Day on the 10th December, started in 1950. The bursting calendar of events shows that these days must obviously have a significant impact and I am curious as to what a detailed evaluation would reveal. Granted that evaluating such kinds of events is extremely problematic but this may surely become easier given the trend now a days, for people to post their events on a designated website like How many events organised, how many attendees, participants, t-shirts, posters, flyers, adverts, how much funds raised? And more importantly what is the follow up post event?  Does the public then place crucial subject matter such as the environment, AIDS, child abuse on a mental shelf in relative obscurity for the remaining 364 days of the year?

Muza Gondwe is a science communicator from Malawi who is keen to engage Africans with science. She is currently on a fellowship at the Centre of African Studies on the Public Understanding of Science in Africa, working on a project titled African Science Heroes.