Its origins are in the struggles for equal pay and decent conditions amongst women in the USA in the 19th century.
On 8 March, 1857, garment workers in New York City marched and picketed, demanding improved working conditions, a ten hour day, and equal rights for women. Their ranks were broken up by the police. Fifty-one years later, 8 March, 1908, their sisters in the needle trades in New York marched again, honouring the 1857 march, demanding the vote, and an end to sweatshops and child labour. The police were present on this occasion too.
In 1917 this was the day the working women of Petrograd literally started a revolution. In protest at rising prices and food shortages, they filed into the centre of the city, calling on all fellow workers to join them. Down with hunger!’ ’Down with the war!’ Hunger was claiming the lives of thousands of children, older men and women, and the very sick and very poor.
Nearly a hundred years later, the world is undergoing one of the worst financial crises in its history; this is eroding gains women had attained. In Europe and America, and to some extent in other countries, a layer of working women have been able to insist on equal pay, equal opportunities and flexible working hours. In the 20th century, chauvinist attitudes towards women and sexist advertising were also challenged with some success.
Today on a world scale, the gains of working class and middle class women are under attack. Equal pay for work of equal value, where it has been won, has to be defended. If union leaders do not put up a fight, this and other basic rights come under attack. Advances in measures to relieve women seeking refuge from violent partners have been set back.
This, in a crisis, means nightmare worries over the shrinking budget – falling incomes and rising costs. As publicly-funded services are cut, it means finding more hours and energy for the care of children, and of sick and elderly members of the family. Mass unemployment amongst young people is a major worry. Education opportunities shrink and cuts or non-existent benefits mean young people are dependent on their families. The burdens on working class families become unbearable.
It is women who suffer most from wars, civil wars, famines, natural disasters, land grabs and environmental degradation. They suffer most from reactionary religious practices like forced marriages, genital mutilation. But it is also women who suffer most from our inability to develop economies for the benefit of all, instead of the handful of rich.
As Care International points out on their web-site: 70% of the world’s poorest billion people are women and girls, two thirds of people who cannot read or write are women and in many countries, more women are likely to die in childbirth than get an education. In a world where the rich in every country are getting richer and the poor poorer, the fight for survival becomes daily more urgent for women.
In countries like India and China, the majority of women and their children live in absolute poverty. A certain layer of society (about 300 million people in each case) has been raised from absolute poverty to a reasonable lower middle class existence. As the crisis hits, they are beginning to be forced back into the mire of poverty and homelessness.
Some are beginning to fight back on the question of housing and the environment. Workers – young men and women - who have been drawn from the poverty-stricken countryside into big factories have begun to fight against the long hours and slave labour conditions inflicted on them. In India, young workers at Suzuki Maruti, for example, have formed their own unions, taken strike action and won better pay and conditions....Young women in the hot-houses of China’s factories, sometimes work up to 12 hours a day. Recently they have been involved in important strikes. At Foxconn (which employs a million, mostly women, in China) suicide appeared as the only way out. The strikes of last year, however, won at least temporary improvements. Threatened mass suicides have again hit the headlines but the idea of mass struggle is gaining momentum. Many women will play a vital role in leading them to partial and full victories.
Women must have the chance to freely decide when and if to have children (and how many). As child-bearers, they can suffer huge emotional and material stress from both having and not having children.. Women should be able to enjoy sexual relations without fear of unwanted pregnancy. They should also, on the other hand, be helped with problems of fertility, again, with the full assistance of the state.
We need sensitively to conduct campaigns against forced marriages, rape, female circumcision. Religion is important to many people and they should have the right to practice whatever they wish as individuals, as long as it does not impinge on the basic rights of others. This includes the wearing of the burka, which right should neither be denied to women nor forced upon them.
In the past year, revolutions have been on the agenda. In the revolutions of North Africa and the Middle East, women have taken an important role in the battles on the streets and in the strikes which have brought victories. Young women have shown a fierce determination to win a different society than that prescribed by dictators or by reactionary religiousfundamentalists.
The size of the task which remains to be completed, however, in countries like Tunisia and Egypt has been illustrated by the brutal attacks on women even in Tahrir Square – centre of the revolution. Women have organised important demonstrations in protests at this. A recent report on British TV showed that even a year after the revolution in Egypt, 90% of parents are still subjecting their daughters to vaginal mutilation – robbing them for life of the possibility of experiencing sexual satisfaction. There is a long way to go in the struggle for equal rights!
One of the worst expressions of the exploitation and oppression of women is the gruesome practice of people trafficking, mostly with the aim of selling women and girls into forced prostitution. Campaigns against all forms of exploitation and oppression in present day society, and of discrimination on the grounds of sex, nationality, creed and sexual orientation, need full backing.
Women must stay to the fore in all the struggles for reform. They are already playing a vital role in the campaigns for youth jobs and in the strikes of teachers, civil servants and health-workers against cuts and austerity.
In Sri Lanka, women working in the Free Trade Zones have participated in strike action against the Rajapakse dictatorship’s pension reforms and won! In Pakistan an important strike of nurses was victorious. In Kazakhstan, women play a vital role in the fight against housing evictions. In the USA and elsewhere, the ‘Occupy’ movements have seen women expressing great anger against bankers and the pampered and privileged 1% who dominate society. The way in which ‘indignad@s’ is written in Spain – combining the feminine ’a’ ending with the masculine ’o’ - indicates a keen awareness of the importance of women and men being treated as equals.
On International Women’s Day, 2012, we know that women will play a vital role in developing a future society based on fulfilment of needs and wishes rather than greed and exploitation. Women will not accept the turning back of the clock. Such a society, achieved through democratic planning and control, will at last be able to utilise harmoniously and cooperatively, every human being’s talent and every natural resource of the planet to the greatest benefit of all human society.