In recent months, millions of women worldwide have risen up to resist the devastating effect that the economic crisis is having on their lives. Hundreds of thousands of super-exploited textile and other workers in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia and elsewhere have participated in a wave of strikes for higher wages which spread rapidly from one Asian country to another. Millions of women workers have taken part in general strikes in France, Spain, Greece and Portugal, and in the huge protests against public sector attacks which have swept across Europe. Young women have been in the front-line of a new generation of fighters in significant student movements against cuts and fee rises - in Britain, Italy and elsewhere. And, of course, tens of thousands of women have participated in the marvellous movements in Egypt and Tunisia for democratic and social rights and an end to dictatorial regimes.
There is likely to be an intensification of these struggles in the coming months, especially in those countries where the austerity axe is falling the hardest. We have no choice but to fight. Over the last 40 years the lives of women in the developed capitalist countries have undergone important social transformations. Inequality, discrimination and oppression have not been eradicated, but important changes laid the basis for the idea to take root that significant progress was being made and would continue in the future and even that equality was within women’s grasp.
The situation in the neo-colonial countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East has clearly been very different. But even there, globalisation and the economic and social changes it has engendered - particularly the drawing of increasing numbers of young women out of the home and into the workforce - was meant to hold out the hope that things could gradually get better for women everywhere.
Now the world economic crisis and its aftermath, threaten to push many of those gains which have been made rapidly into reverse. This would entail a severe worsening of life for women in the developed countries and a nightmare for women in the neo-colonial world.
The crisis is starkly revealing what the CWI has always argued - the incompatibility of capitalism and genuine women’s rights, whichever part of the globe we live in. Exploitation and oppression are at the heart of the capitalist system, where profit and competition reign supreme. Only through a struggle against that system and for a socialist alternative will we be able to go forward.
Why we have to organise and fight back
Women and work
In recent decades the growing influx of women into the workforce has been a global phenomenon. In some countries there are now more women than men in work. While women’s wages everywhere are on average lower than those of men, this process has nevertheless led to more economic independence for women and a transformation in their outlook and that of society generally.
In its initial phase, the economic crisis had a mixed effect on women’s employment. Where job losses were mainly concentrated in manufacturing and construction, such as in the USA, male workers were most severely hit. Where the service sector was in the firing line, which was the case in Britain, women bore the brunt of redundancy and unemployment. Now that a jobs bloodbath is being created in the public sector in many countries it will be overwhelmingly women who will suffer the most. According to surveys released in Britain, where half a million public sector workers are expected to be sacked in the next few years, 75% of the pain of public sector cuts will be experienced by women. This is because they make up the majority of workers in the public sector - the teachers, nurses and local government workers whose jobs are under threat. At the same time women will be disproportionately affected as services and benefits are slashed.
Rising unemployment and benefit cuts will mean growing poverty for working-class and some middle-class women, especially for single parents. Where unemployed women manage to find alternative work it is likely to be low paid, casualised and precarious with reduced or non-existent sickness, holiday, pension, maternity and other rights. Wages and working conditions are being severely attacked in both the public and private sectors.
This will increase the financial dependence of women on individual men and could have a negative effect on personal relations. In the preceeding period, paid work, state benefits and public housing have afforded some women a degree of economic independence which has meant that unlike previous generations, they have been able to leave unhappy or abusive relationships. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, there has been a decrease in the rate of divorce in some countries (and up to three quarters of divorces are normally initiated by women). This is a sign that leaving a relationship is becoming more difficult and that some women, as in the past, are being forced, through economic constraints, to stay with partners against their will.
Increased access to higher education has been one of the key factors fuelling changes in women’s lives and outlook. Now, for the first time in the developed capitalist countries, the next generation of young women face a future bleaker than that of their mothers. The commercialistaion of higher education, draconian cuts to education budgets and hikes in fees will make it much harder for young women to go to university and achieve a good quality education in the hope of improving their prospects of a decent life. Even when they do manage to get a university qualification, the dire employment situation means that many will be forced into temporary, low paid work and a life of insecurity and exploitation.
Publicly funded services
Despite big changes in some women’s lives, they still continue to be the main carers for children and other family members. As the neo-liberal axe falls on nurseries, elderly people’s homes and other social services, it is normally women who have to pick up the pieces. This will mean even more women forced to give up work. It will make it harder for unemployed women to get back into the workforce and will increase the double burden related to caring for home and family for those who still have a job. Cuts and privatisation will lead to a fall in the quality of services and a deterioration in the wages and conditions of the workers who provide them.
Violence against women
One in five women will experience violence from partners or ex-partners at some time in their lives. In the advanced capitalist countries one in seven will be raped. In some parts of the world, the brutal mass rape of women has become a lethal weapon of war. The growing international trade of women for sex is fuelled by poverty and will be exacerbated by the current economic crisis.
Violence against women has its roots in the traditional idea (still prevalent in many societies) that women are the property of men. It is reinforced by the still unequal economic relationship between men and women and the way in which capitalism itself is based on private property, inequalities of wealth and power. Frequently violence is used by capitalism to defend its interests (as the textile workers in Asia and students in Europe have experienced first hand). Poverty and unemployment do not cause domestic violence. It takes place equally across all social groups and classes. But these factors can be a trigger for violence in the home and the economic crisis can make it more likely.
In many countries attitudes towards violence against women have radically improved over the last three decades. Progressive laws have been passed regarding domestic violence and there is a general acknowledgement that it is a serious crime which must be tackled. But the drastic cuts to public sector services could undermine much of the progress which has been made. Attacks on childcare, refuges for women and other services will make it more difficult for women to escape violence in the home (where most abuse takes place) while cuts in transport, street lighting etc. will mean that women are less safe outside. Funding for rape crisis centres and support for women who have been abused are also under threat.
In the last decade or so 19 countries have liberalised their abortion laws but millions still live in countries where abortion is illegal or severely restricted. Worldwide around 20 million illegal abortions take place every year resulting in the deaths of 70,000 women and the maiming of millions more.
In some countries ideological attacks on abortion continue and need to be countered. But in many countries it will be cuts in health and other services which threaten this right. Cutbacks will also mean less access to infertility treatment, and further closures and reductions in clinics offering advice on contraception and sexual health, with young women being particularly affected.
Sexuality and sexism
Millions of women worldwide suffer terrible constraints on their sexuality, including the barbaric practice of genital mutilation. In many of the advanced capitalist countries social attitudes towards sexuality and personal relationships have undoubtedly progressed. Generally women have felt more liberated, freed from many of the moral, social and religious constraints of the past. But under capitalism sexual liberation becomes distorted by the pursuit of profit and existing inequalities. The capitalist system turns everything into a commodity, including women’s bodies - whether for sale directly in the sex industry or indirectly through their use in advertising and selling products. It promotes particular images of women which are limiting, stereotypical and often damaging. This objectification of women reinforces backward attitudes, including violence, and as a consequence undermines women in the wider struggle for economic and social rights.
The huge protests and strikes which women have been involved in recently show that destroying those gains which have been won will not take place without a fight. The struggle of the textile workers in Asia and the Middle East have demonstrated that even the most exploited women workers are prepared to fight back.
There will not be a linear rolling back of women’s rights. The significant changes in social attitudes that have taken place, especially in the more developed capitalist countries, cannot be easily reversed. Women (and many men) are not going to accept that a woman’s place is back in the home and not in the workforce. Women will fight tenaciously to defend the economic and social gains which have been made.
There will inevitably be attempts to revive old prejudices in order to undermine those struggles, to drive a wedge between men and women, especially in the workplace. Any attempts at dividing and weakening workers on gender lines has to be vigorously combated because a successful struggle to defend and extend women’s rights is possible only if it is an anti-capitalist struggle, involving a united working class.
Based on competition and the ruthless search for profits capitalism creates exploitation, poverty, oppression, violence, war and environmental degradation. It is a rotten system which limits and destroys the lives of workers and young people with women doubly oppressed and restricted because of their gender. Women therefore have a particular interest in fighting for an alternative to the capitalist system.
A socialist alternative would be based on public not private ownership of production, on democratic control by producers and consumers and not a rich elite, where need not profit would determine what is produced, and where unequal and hierarchical relations of wealth and power would be replaced by cooperation, equality and mutual respect both nationally and internationally.
Life could be so much different for everyone but especially for women. A democratically planned economy would release resources to ensure a decent income and economic independence for everyone. Publicly provided quality services such as childcare, healthcare, education, housing, transport etc. would give women real choice over every aspect of their lives. A society based on equality and cooperation would lay the basis for an end to all forms of sexism and violence against women; women would finally be truly liberated.