In the Congo women proclaimed March 8 a "day without women". They stayed at home to grieve their loved ones killed in the wars and to grieve their rights as women which are trampled on. Tens of thousands of women marched in different cities in India that day. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Morocco on March 12 under the slogan "We share the land, let us share its bounty". Women in Sao Paulo, Brazil gathered outside the country’s stock exchange banging pots and pans to denounce poverty, violence and inequality. On August 10, 25,000 rural women workers went to Brasilia in the ’Marcha das Margaridas’ honouring a rural workers’ union leader murdered by state forces in 1983 and to presenting their demands for sustainable rural development. Thousands of women took to the streets of Paris in June and trade union organisations in Australia are behind a series of work-place, school and community events throughout the country in October.
The culmination of all this activity is on October 16 and 17 when international representatives from over 150 countries will join demonstrators in Washington and New York marching on the headquarters of the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Delegations will present a long list of demands to top officials of these bodies, seen quite rightly, as representing the rich and powerful. Their demands include equitable labour standards, an end to structural adjustment programmes and debt cancellation for Third World countries. The World Women’s March is part of what has become a round of truly international demonstrations demanding that organisations dominated by the big world powers must end poverty, exploitation and war. Seattle and Washington, Melbourne and Prague have all hosted what have come to be known as ’anti-capitalist’ protests and on all of them, young women have been to the fore.
Ideals and reality
The actual organisers of the World Women’s March - predominantly Non-Governmental Organisations as well as a number of trade unions and political parties - call their international protest, "an act of solidarity to change the world". But they do not see capitalism in itself as a problem. Most of them seem to think it should simply function differently - ensuring an equitable distribution of the world’s resources and establishing peace between peoples and nations. Yet they are asking for less than 1% of the rich countries’ gross national product in aid for developing countries! They also constantly refer to international conventions - on sexual discrimination, on violence against women, on land-mines, on the rights of children and migrants - passed years, even decades ago. They indicate themselves how widely these conventions are ignored and yet call for more!
The march organisers are attempting to voice the anger and frustration felt world-wide about the position of women - the discrimination and violence they face at home and at work, their double oppression, the appalling levels of illiteracy, disease, homelessness and killing suffered by women and their children. But they do not lay the blame where it belongs - at the feet of capitalism and the vestiges of other forms of class domination.
We whole-heartedly support the aims of the march - "a world based on equality, the sharing of wealth, social solidarity, justice, freedom and peace" - but they will remain in the realm of dreams without an understanding of the causes of all that is wrong. It requires a struggle to eradicate those causes by eliminating class domination and oppression. It means mobilising not just demonstrations and signature-signing but class action - strikes, general strikes and even revolutionary action. The new uprisings in Israel and the revolution in Serbia are a portent of what is to come.
The grim picture
The statistics which lie behind the present women’s protests are indeed a catalogue of disaster. Two thirds of the world’s poor are women. They do two thirds of the world’s work - in its factories and offices, schools and hospitals, shops, banks and hotels, in transport and in the fields. They receive one tenth of the world’s income. Women and their children constitute the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees, mostly fleeing wars and civil wars. Tens of millions more women leave their homes and even their countries to try and provide some income for themselves and their families. Millions end up as domestic or even sex slaves, unable to return to their own homes. World-wide, millions of women are ’traded’ as commodities by gangs of human traffickers, preying on the vulnerability of women trying to escape crisis-torn parts of the world. The value of trafficking in human beings is now said to be greater than in drug trafficking.
Women as victims of beatings, rape, torture and killing at the hands of state forces is widespread. It is also prevalent even within the ’sanctuary’ of the home. The overwhelming majority of rapes and murders of women, not related to war, are carried out by family members or people known to them. In some countries, wife-beating is not only accepted as a part of life but actually encouraged as a form of correction for errant women! In some countries, China, Korea, India and elsewhere - female babies are often aborted or killed soon after birth.
The real culprits
But every threat to the life and happiness of women has its origins in the domination of society by classes or castes who have wealth, power and state forces at their command and aim to exclude the mass of the population from the benefits of the labour they perform day in and day out. Stalinist bureaucracies, who claimed power was in the hands of the working class, used arrest, prison, exile and murder to ensure it remained within their privileged clique. Today, the predominant system of class rule is capitalism; before that, it was feudalism. In many countries capitalism holds the masses in semi-feudal conditions and perpetuates the habits and traditions of feudalism to maintain its rule, especially when it comes to subjecting women to the authority of men and of the state. For these reasons it is often women - especially young women - who are the first to move into revolt.
The domination of society by one class which is in a minority demands the obedience of the rest. The classes which own land, factories and banks need a large supply of people available to work for them as cheaply as possible. Historically, rulers have used all the means possible - including religion and sexist advertising etc. - to keep women in a subordinate role to men and to exploit all workers - men and women - to the maximum. They expect parents to feed and clothe the next generation and train their offspring to fit in with the norms of behaviour established by ruling classes for centuries. In the context of the neo-liberal policies adopted by capitalist governments world-wide, which involve big cuts in public services, women are expected to shoulder responsibilities which had, for a while, been shouldered by the state.
Struggle and success
This is why we, as socialists, believe working class women, campaigning on issues that affect them and joining with their male counter-parts in struggle, have most to fight for and most to gain. Many victories have already been achieved in many countries around the world. The democratic rights of women - to participate in elections, to receive a full education, to speak and act without seeking the permission of male relatives etc. - have been widely achieved, although not everywhere. The right to equal pay for work of equal value has been generally agreed in principle and often in law but is also widely disregarded.
Big advances have been made through campaigns and struggles to establish a woman’s right to choose whether to have children or not. There is still, however a long way to go before it is universally accepted that contraception and abortion should be available free and on demand to all the world’s women. They should also have the right to receive expert assistance with all aspects of pregnancy and child birth. It is an infringement of the rights of men as well as women to put obstructions in the way of research into fertility as well as contraception.
Sexual harassment in work, and violence against women in the home, have become the subject of far more publicity and protective legislation, thanks to numerous campaigns conducted mostly by women. It has been organisations like the Campaign Against Domestic Violence in Britain, initiated by members of the socialist Committee for a Workers’ International, that have insisted that trade unions and workers’ parties become involved.
Women have been to the fore in numerous community and work-place struggles. Through lively and determined campaigns, women old and young have managed to keep open hospitals and nurseries, to close down brothels and beauty contests, to frighten racists off the streets and to organise campaigns to make education available for all. Marches and campaigns have an important role to play in publicising a problem and getting concessions out of public authorities or even governments.
But the idea that the equal distribution of wealth, the end of discrimination and oppression and world peace can be organised by the big capitalist powers is utopian and unrealistic. It is like asking a fox to guard a chicken-run! It is not in the nature of the capitalists’ way of doing things for them to stop robbing the working people of all lands. Nor is it in their nature to stop fomenting competition for territory, raw materials, productive capacity and markets.
That is why a real alternative must be fought for. The only way to change society sufficiently to end the oppression of women world-wide is to end the rule of those responsible for their oppression - the big owners of land, industry and the banks, their kept press and state forces and their political mouthpieces. This means struggling for a society where industry, land and banks are publicly owned and run under the control and management of working people’s representatives. This would be genuine democratic socialism. Unfortunately, the leaders of many parties which have ’socialist’ or ’social democratic’ in their name have abandoned these ideas and accepted the dictates of the market. New workers’ parties are now needed to take the place of those which have become instruments for maintaining the ’status quo’ - i.e. capitalist relations in society.
Parties are needed which argue the case for socialism but also inscribe on their banner:
- A shorter working week and a living wage for all workers.
- The public ownership under democratic workers’ control of the major multinationals and monopolies that dominate the world economy.
Socialism not stalinism
The only government that has set out to achieve world socialism from the very beginning was that of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. It also lost no time in introducing measures which radically transformed the situation and prospects for working and peasant women. The right to equal pay for work of equal value was established and equal opportunities for women in education and employment. Civil marriage and divorce were immediately introduced. Abortion and contraception were established as a right.
A law was passed for the immediate shortening of the working day. This gave women as well as men much more chance to participate in running the state and the economy through the democratic system of elected councils (soviets). When Stalin and his clique usurped power in 1924, they not only began physically wiping out all opposition to their dictatorship, but also undermined all the gains that had been made by working class women as an immediate result of the overthrow of capitalism. The growth of Stalinism had its roots in the backwardness of economic and social relations. It was this same backwardness which stunted the ambitious programme of nurseries, laundries and communal restaurants for all.
Big parasitic bureaucracies came to control the planned economies of eastern Europe, the USSR and elsewhere for decades. Along with heavy state repression, they relied on the institution of the family to inculcate the idea of submission to authority on the part of women, children and, indeed, all workers. Admittedly, the state-owned, planned economy in these countries maintained a more universal system of nursery provision than in capitalist countries and more women were out of the home in paid employment. But this was not a socialist society, which would see both a superabundance of goods and the fullest democracy! These Stalinist regimes paid lip service to both ’socialism’ and to the rights of working class women and trampled on many of their basic rights and freedoms.
Capitalism in these countries today has brought with it new scourges for working class women. They are the first victims of the massive slump and privatisation in the economy. Many of their jobs have disappeared. Education, nursery and health facilities have been slashed. They are most afflicted by the epidemics of alcoholism and gangsterism, of pornography and prostitution that have accompanied the return of capitalism. All this is stopping many even contemplating bringing children into the world. The population of Russia is shrinking!
The world we want
The situation of women in society is always a measure of how ’advanced’ it can be considered. In every country, there are some very rich women and in every country, the majority of women suffer humiliation and discrimination, even if not actual oppression and super-exploitation. We want a world where every human being has a right to all the basic freedoms - to education and jobs but also to clean water and adequate health care.
The resources are there. More than $700 billion a year is squandered on arms and armies around the world. A United Nations Human Development Report has pointed out that 225 richest people in the world have a combined wealth of $1 trillion. This is the same as the annual income of nearly half the world’s population - 2.5 billion people. They estimate that just 4% of that wealth - $40 billion - would provide for a whole year universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and safe water and sanitation for all.
It would take just two and a half billion dollars to wipe out the total debt of the world’s poorest nations.
The main task must be to struggle for an end to capitalism, the system that breeds all the ills of our society. Once we recognise the real enemy, we can find ways to overwhelm it and defeat it. The primary task is to mobilise the majority of working and young women, together with their class brothers, around a fighting socialist programme.
Programme for socialist action
- Join us in campaigns on issues that particularly affect working class women - Against precarious jobs and low pay. For child benefits that meet the cost of bringing up children. For a comprehensive programme of spending increases to provide adequate housing, schools, hospitals and transport.
- Help make sexual harassment at work and domestic violence trade union and political issues. Provide resources for defence against and refuge from violent partners or relatives.
- Help campaign on the issue of women’s reproductive rights and for a genuine right to choose -
- For early and relevant sex education in schools. Free contraception and abortion on demand. For a massive publicly-funded research into fertility and the provision of help to women with difficulties in having children. For adequate pre-natal and post-natal care for all women!
- Join our campaigns amongst young women in the schools, colleges and dead-end jobs -
- Against discrimination of all kinds. Freedom of choice in relation to education, work, marriage and child-bearing. Against sexism and racism. Against low pay and lack of training for young workers!
- Organise working women to struggle for their rights at work! Recruit them into trade unions and other fighting organisations. For direct control over these organisations by the workers they represent.
- Join the fight to build new workers’ parties.
- Join the struggle for a socialist alternative to the domination of our lives by big business and the profit-motive.
- Say no to exploitation, poverty, disease and war! Fight to end capitalism and establish a socialist world federation!