March 8, International Women’s Day, this year should be celebrated to the sound of the cacerolazo – empty pans and lids being clashed noisily together. It is the sound of protest in Argentina – especially of Argentinian women – expressing anger against empty stomachs and no trust in those at the top.
Oppressed people across the world have received an inspiring message from Argentina. A mass movement was able to remove five presidents from power in just two weeks! Argentina shows to working and poor people that the power of the masses can move mountains. The greetings from the Committee for a Workers’ International to all workers in struggle on International Women’s Day emphasises this strength, acknowledges women’s role in the struggle and calls for mobilisation behind women’s call for justice.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 began with working class women going into the streets on International Women’s Day saying, "Enough is enough: there is no food!" Women and young people are the driving force in the movement still shaking Argentina. Women make up 60 to 70 per cent of those participating in the hundreds of people’s councils meeting every week in and around Buenos Aires.
Argentina shows that neo-liberalism, despite what the bosses and the politicians are saying, offers no way forward for what was once the seventh largest economy in the world, let alone the poorest debt-laden countries. And as usual, it is the Argentinian masses (including a big part of the so-called middle class) that will have to carry the intolerably heavy burden of the crisis. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) 24 million jobs will be lost internationally this year.
One of the most obvious trends in society during the last decades has been the influx of women into the labour force. Wage earning has given women the basis for a degree of economic independence and the opportunity to raise their voices. Will this be changed in the recession? Economic collapse in the ex Stalinist countries (the bureaucratically-run state-owned economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) hit women hardest and meant a lower share of women in the workforce. The economic crisis in Latin America during the 1980s did not end that way. It is true that women also lost their jobs, but the new jobs went to an even greater extent to women, to new groups of women, to younger women who were paid even less, something which compelled even more members of workers’ families into wage labour.
This trend has been very evident during the years of economic growth. Two thirds of the new jobs in the EU between 1994 and 1999 went to women. However, the same share of the new jobs were part-time. In the EU, 80 per cent of part-time workers are women, and as for full-time jobs, women’s share is one third. The new women’s jobs are low-paid, insecure, part-time jobs with lower hourly wages and lower pensions. It is mostly women who are made to pay for insufficient public child care. More women than ever are regarded as poor and unemployment statistics, published by the ILO, at the end of 20th century showed that in 73 per cent of the countries which provided figures a higher proportion of women than men were out of work.
The new recession will be accompanied by new cuts in social spending. The military budget in the USA already means cuts in health care. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and especially the common budgetary policies of the European Monetary Union are trying to implement strict ‘financial discipline’. Rich families will be able to buy private services for the care of children, old and ill people, but others must fight to defend their already modest rights. Workers in Europe will have to use the Argentinian women’s methods and declare, "Not another crisis financed by the doubling of women’s efforts".
The determination which we express today also has its origin in the grief for those who have had to sacrifice their lives in the struggle for women’s liberation. One of these was Fadime Sahindal. She was murdered in Sweden on January 21 2002 by her own father in front of the eyes of her mother and sister. Since 1998 Fadime had publicly expressed the multiple oppression immigrant girls are subjected to. That year she reported to the police that her father and brother had threatened and harassed her. During a break in the subsequent trial – inside the courthouse – her brother shouted "I will kill that bloody whore", an incident which was recorded on TV. Calling his sister a whore was natural to him – not as a swear-word but as an expression of the family’s determination to control her life. Fadime, who had immigrated from Kurdistan, had a Swedish boyfriend who was not accepted by her family, the reason for the harassment.
Fadime was forced to break all links and relations with her family and had to move to another town, but she refused to go underground. After all, she only wanted to be free. She was however always afraid and expected retaliation. Fadime is neither the first nor the last victim of so-called "honour killing" – murders by which the perpetrators intend to "restore the family honour" and to which the entire family assent. There are, according to the United Nations (UN), 1,500 – 5,000 such murders every year. There are hundreds in Pakistan, the Yemen, Bangladesh and Turkey and around fifty a year in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine. It is also happening in Brazil, Mexico, Uganda and the Lebanon.
In its response to Fadime’s tragedy, the Swedish section of the CWI, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, has had to answer an avalanche of racist comments. The Danish media and the Danish government have also used the race card and cited the Fadime case, to obstruct immigration and worsen conditions for immigrants.
Marxists explain that the oppression of women has its roots in the patriarchal family, which arose out of the needs of a developing class society and was consolidated along with this. Patriarchal societies enforced tight controls over women’s sexuality and this lead to the double standards we see today between the treatment of male and female sexuality. Women who have broken the ‘’limitations’ since then have in one way or another been attacked and harassed. Capitalism has used the family as an institution and ideology, and adopted it to suit the needs of industrialised societies. In regions with a lower degree of industrialisation the family as a power structure is more important. In countries where capitalism is more developed and where there is a strong and organised working class, the collective struggle of workers and women have led to important victories – social welfare and democratic rights.
CWI members in Britain, who set up the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, remind us that until eleven years ago rape in the family was not considered a crime in British law. The beating of wives was made illegal in Britain in 1896, although as their campaign pack points out: "That does not mean the ideas which allow it and the practice were ever abolished".
Just like the police shooting of demonstrators in Gothenburg on June 15 last year, the bullets in Fadime’s head have shattered illusions of Sweden as a model of justice, welfare and equality. Sweden is statistically the most equal country in the world, but the CWI in Sweden does not believe that gender oppression can be abolished under capitalism. For a couple of decades the economy was reformed to the advantage of workers and women. The public sector expanded strongly, which among other things led to one year’s parental leave and the possibility of six years’ public childcare for all children. These welfare measures were, however, conditional and an exception under capitalism. Since the mid-1980s, there have been continuous cuts in social services even during the last few years of economic growth and sky-rocketing profits and with the Social Democratic Party in office. These have repeatedly hit women hardest. They, their children and immigrants have been affected most of all.
Fadime’s father was illiterate and shut out from Swedish society. Another Swedish-Kurdish woman, Pela, who was murdered by her father and uncle, had tried to run away from home several times, but had always had to return because she could not manage economically on her own and was not allowed any social security. All politicians shed crocodile tears over Fadime’s death that week but through their right-wing policies, they are not themselves without guilt.
This is not an isolated case. The blood of numerous women is found on the hands of top politicians all over the world. The number of deaths due to the bombs over Afghanistan dropped by George W. Bush and his brother-in-arms Tony Blair will probably never be known. For twenty years Afghan women suffered through war and the harshest of gender apartheid without any reaction from the West. The rate of illiteracy among Afghan girls is 90 per cent. As women do not get health care, 45 women die every day from pregnancy-related causes and Afghanistan also has the highest infant mortality rate in the world.
After the terrorist attack on September 11, the Taliban oppression of women was used by Bush as part of the justification for bombing the country. But the war also created a new wave of refugees, of which the overwhelming majority are children and women. The new regime of the Northern Alliance and warlords means that power is in the hands of militiamen who during previous wars have carried out mass rape. This year, aid organisations report increased numbers of rapes and other crimes. Liberation for Afghan women will not firstly be measured in cast-off burqas but in access to food, houses and jobs.
Due to the already present fighting mood against imperialism and neo-liberalism, the bombings were promptly answered by an international antiwar movement, a movement in which women predominated. At the same time, September 11 became a terrifying reminder of the destructive effects of terrorism. Religious fundamentalism is not in any way progressive, but is rather an expression of the failure of the workers’ movement to provide an alternative and to organise resistance against the exploitation of imperialism.
Imperialism does not only kill women through war. The first decision made by George W. Bush when he took office was the Mexico City Act. This meant that organisations outside the USA that perform abortions, work for safe and legal abortions or educate and refer women wanting abortion to appropriate clinics, will not receive any economic aid from America. The White House has given sustenance to the ‘pro-life’ fanatics who put up video cameras outside abortion clinics saying things like: "These homicidal mothers must be held up for the world to see!"
Society in decline
Bush’s policies will lead to the deaths of thousands of women through illegal, unsafe abortions being performed. According to statistics for 1999, abortion is fully legal in only 50 countries covering 40 per cent of the world’s population. Only 500,000 out of six million abortions each year are legal. But legislation by itself does not guarantee that abortions become safe. In India, where abortion has been legal for 30 years, there is still a lack of proper care, making many abortions dangerous.
Progress in the field of medicine and health care is often held up as demonstrating that human development is going in the right direction. The terrible truth is, however, that the increased poverty of the last twenty years has led to an increase in maternity deaths, This amounts to nothing less than mass murder and is shrouded in silence. Every day in the world, the number of deaths from child-birth are the equivalent of six jumbo jets full of people crashing with no survivors! A mother’s right to life is a class issue. A woman in Africa is subject to a 1 in 20 risk of dying in childbirth while, for a woman in an industrialized country, it is 1 in 2000.
During the year 2001, the anti-capitalist movement really took off in Europe. It reached a high point in July when 300,000 demonstrators marched through Genoa, defying the massed ranks of police and Carabinieri armed with tear-gas and live bullets. One of the central demands put forward to the meeting of the G8 – the seven wealthiest countries in the world plus Russia – was to cancel the debts of the poor countries. In Africa four times as much is spent on paying off interest and loans to banks than on health care!
A society in decline tends to turn back the clock and undermine any social and political gains that have been made through struggle. Exploitation, oppression and gender discrimination become more ruthless and reinforce the structure of power in society. The restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the CIS has impoverished 100 million people. In Russia these economic changes have resulted in the removal of large numbers of women from the workforce. Their financial independence and status in the family and society have been undermined and the process has been accompanied by a horrific increase in domestic violence, in prostitution and in pornography. In South Africa, one woman is raped every 26 seconds, according to women’s rights activists. Ten per cent of the population is infected by the HIV virus. Adult men are raping infants in the belief that "virginity" will protect them from developing AIDS. At the same time, President Thabo Mbeki denies any connections between HIV and AIDS.
The world is richer than ever, but the gulf between rich and poor is also greater than ever before. More and more people refuse to accept this absurdity, and join in the demonstrations at the summit meetings of the rich and powerful. One of the anti-capitalist movement’s prime concerns has been to highlight how multinational corporations drive the costs of production down to a minimum through the use of sub-contractors who impose slave wages and atrocious working conditions. This is often done in Export Processing Zones (EPZs) established in many ’third world’ countries where companies are exempted from taxation and given other lucrative incentives to move in and exploit local labour. Women make up 80 per cent of workers in these zones.
Export Processing Zones
Most of these zones and also the worst are found in China. According to the ILO, 18 million EPZ workers out of a total of 27 million worldwide are in China. Wang Xingjuan lectured at a women’s conference in Peking held in 1995. Now she says, "When the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, Mao said that women could carry half the sky. Women did get work. That is why many women believe we are equal. However, the economic reforms in the 1980s have led to a setback". Women comprise 70 per cent of those employees fired by companies forced to show ‘good result’,.
Production costs in China are only a third of those even of India. This means harsh competition since trade restrictions were removed from 400 products in the year 2000. This was done in the name of ‘free trade’ as dictated by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Competition, not only from China but also from the Philippines and Bangladesh, has caused a severe crisis in all export industries but particularly in textile manufacturing which is carried out largely by women workers. Since 1995 a total of 70,000 textile factories – more than 40 percent of the total – have been closed down. On top of all this is a sharp decline in the ’out-sourcing’ of production to the home, which cuts off another avenue for women to earn at least a meagre income while staying in the home with their dependents. The full extent and implications of all this are as yet impossible to grasp.
Last year, CWI members in India reported on how the deeply felt insecurity of textile workers exploded into anger over an attempt by the employers to refuse them access to their own savings until they reached pension age. On July 24, a handful of workers in the industrial area of Peenya, Bangalore, walked out of work to march to their bosses’ office in protest. Their demonstration grew by the hour and in the evening had become a mass protest with over 10,000 people taking part. The crowd had grown into a two kilometre-long procession that flooded the highway between Bangalore and Bombay. It caused a traffic jam which it took an entire day to sort out!
Another target of the anti-capitalists and socialists is financial speculation – the casino economy. Globalisation is making capitalism even more parasitic. Anything is welcome on the inflated stock exchange, even companies producing and distributing pornography. With access to ’risk’ capital they can advance to new levels. In October 2001, the financial magazine, ’Forbes’, listed 20 of the 200 best smaller companies in the world, "that we believe are the cream of the crop". Among these was the porn empire – Private Media Group. They initially entered the American stock markets through another company, but took their own undisguised place on the NASDAQ stock market in 1999. ’Private’ has also been spearheading the use of newer technology such as DVD and has recently come to an agreement with Altavista, the world’s largest search engine, which will triple their Internet sales.
Capitalism is, as Karl Marx saw long ago, reducing everything to commodities. The sex trade has become an integrated part of the economy. It was no coincidence that the sex industry was the first to recover after the economic crisis in South East Asia of 1997-1998. Prostitutes in the cities of Thailand send the equivalent of 300 million dollars to their families in the country each year, which is a far greater sum than any of the ’development’ programmes financed by the government. In Western Europe, each year half a million women are literally traded. In Germany, there are more women working as prostitutes than as teachers!
There is no end to commercialisation. Every inch of our bodies, every process in our lives, has become marketable. Stereotyped male and female gender roles are expressed in fashion, toys, beauty products and entertainment. In 1998, the costs of advertising amounted to US$ 435 billion. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), this is four times the amount needed to provide 1,200 million needy people with fresh water.
Young people in revolt
The revolts of young people in Europe in defence of education in the last few years have seen women playing a leading role. In some countries, the anti-capitalist movement itself has begun with women’s struggle against the special problems of women world-wide, not least the humiliations of sexism and chauvinism. Naomi Klein has pointed to this both in her book ’No Logo’ and in her recent speech at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre this year. Women made up 43 per cent of all those attending this event – most of them young, but by no means all. This is in spite of women having particular difficulty being away from home either because of children or backward attitudes in their societies about a woman travelling alone and being independent. As we pointed out last year, the ’World March of Women – 2000’ brought together 6,000 organisations from 161 countries and saw marches and demonstrations of women throughout every continent.
Academically oriented feminism has, at the same time, been slanted towards a more liberal and individual stance, and dissociated itself from collective struggle. Socialists often hear from other women activists (who might even consider themselves belonging to the Left) that it is a mistake to raise political issues when it comes to struggle against sexual harassment for example. They claim it is an exclusively isolated women’s issue. This line of reasoning weakens women’s struggle. This kind of feminism has ideologically tried to push women away from the conclusion that we need a revolutionary transformation to achieve equality and to see the goal as being to attain as much equality as possible for the individual.
There is no attempt from these academic feminists to reach the new layers of women involved in the anti-capitalist movement and raise women’s issues in that context. Even ‘left’ activists have failed to develop a perspective that recognises the special exploitation of women under global capitalism and offers a programme for resistance against it. For example, at the Gothenburg demonstration, the speakers from the Left Party (the former Swedish Communist Party) and ‘Attac’ avoided speaking about the effects of social cuts for women in Sweden. The anarchist riots didn’t express any politics at all!
In the 35 countries where the CWI has parties, sections or groups, we have always taken part in the struggle of working women. "Organise and fight back!" was the motto of the socialist pioneers and thinkers of the early workers’ movement such as Eleanor Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. We have to say the same. Members of the CWI have been involved in many campaigns against the low pay scandal and to win, in particular, female workers to the trade union movement. At the same time we struggle to transform the trade unions into fighting and democratic organisations, which are a precondition for the unions to be independent – free from the influence of the bosses and the capitalist state – and able to fight against poverty wages, against compulsory part-time work, against privatisation and closures, and for a shortened working week.
We are fighting locally and nationally against downsizing in education, health care and social security, together with those who work in those services or use them.. We have been able to stop privatisation of water supplies and the charging of water fees. In the workplaces, communities, schools and the streets we fight sexual harassment, just as we campaign against domestic violence. Fanatic anti-abortionists and fascists are not going to be allowed to raise their poisonious ideas or march undisturbed. We identify and ‘out’ the porn profiteers and expose sexism within the fashion industry. Together with hundreds of thousands of others we take part in mass protests against war, environmental destruction and capitalism.
It may be true on one level that all men have benefited from what Friedrich Engels called the "world historic defeat of womankind". Even the poorest men have power within their own family, and traditional roles allow men to avoid domestic chores and have more leisure time. But it is also the case that the vast majority of men have little control over their lives as members of the exploited class. Our common enemy – neo-liberalism, capitalism and imperialism – is strong. The toleration of sexism is a weakness, which the workers’ movement cannot afford. Ultimately it is the united struggle of working class women and men, drawing in sections of the middle class, that can overthrow capitalism and lay the basis for a new society with the potential for equality – in short, a socialist society.
Women comprise 70 per cent of the world’s poor and two thirds of women’s work is unpaid. This is such a fundamental part of class society, of the economy and power, that justice is impossible to achieve without a revolutionary transformation. The CWI is fighting for a global socialist society where fundamental material rights – jobs, housing, provision of electricity and water, education, child care and so on – would create the foundations for a truly effective struggle against sexism and gender roles. There are fabulous amounts of resources today on a world scale, but those resources are in the hands of a wealthy elite. In order to acquire democratic control of these resources big corporations and banks have to be brought into public ownership. Such a democratic socialist world would have nothing in common with the Stalinist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Socialism is about ordinary women and men having real control over their lives, at every level. By releasing resources it would provide for the economic liberation of women. Based on cooperation and the elimination of inequalities of power and wealth, it would lay the basis for an end to sexual and cultural oppression of women.