International Women’s Day, 8 March, is commemorated this year on the eve of war. Such a horrific prospect brings into sharp relief all that is rotten in today’s world. But it must not prevent us from commemorating the historic struggles of women throughout the world for their rights – in the workplace, in society and in the home. We remember all the pioneers and champions – known and unknown – of the women’s movement for emancipation and for socialism. So many have dedicated and even sacrificed their lives in the struggle. It is in fact an appropriate time to re-affirm the goal of women fighters through the centuries to gain real and lasting control over every aspect of their lives.
International Women’s Day, March 8th 2003
Women demand an end to war and exploitation.
George Bush is bludgeoning, bribing and bullying his way towards a war in Iraq – a war which will have unknown and disastrous consequences in the Middle East and world-wide. Many demonstrations planned for this Saturday, March 8 will now be angry protests against his plans to bomb Baghdad and to take control of Iraq’s oil-fields for the profit of US big business. It will not be lost on women celebrating and protesting on this day, that one of the most strident war-mongers in Bush’s camarilla is Condoleeza Rice. Like Thatcher in Britain and Indira Gandhi in India in the past, she proves that as part of the ruling elite, considerations of class, power and prestige totally determine her actions and create a chasm between her and the women of the peace movement and the working class.
It is quite clear now, that even a short war conducted by the clique around Bush, and against the wishes of the majority in the world, will cause untold human suffering – death, destruction, homelessness and disease. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions more people will become helpless refugees.
In capitalist society, women carry the major responsibility for the physical care of all family members. In times of national, civil and ethnic wars and of natural and man-made disasters, they are in the frontline of the battle for survival. They and their children already make up the majority of the world’s refugees, driven from their homes and countries, and with no independent means of making a living.
In countries where polls have been taken, it comes as no surprise to see a greater proportion of women than men clearly opposed to a military offensive against Iraq.
Millions of women have become actively involved in the mighty anti-war movement that has developed. In many cases, following up on their increased involvement in workplace and community struggles, they are often initiators and organisers of protests.
Many women with children, determined to participate in the historic demonstrations around the world, have taken their sons and daughters with them. Young women in the schools and universities have been to the fore in organising walk-outs, strike action and demonstrations even before this war has started. They have developed a hatred of the politicians and the system that threaten to destroy their future.
On the anti-war demonstrations now taking place across the globe there are many peace organisations, such as the ’Women in Black’ in Italy, who see it as their task to express the specific desire of women to end wars. While they do not see or at least take up the root causes of women’s double and often triple, oppression, they commendably aim to ’join hands’ with their sisters across borders and across ethnic and religious divides. Particularly, at the present time, they aim to show solidarity with Muslim women, whose communities have been scape-goated in Bush’s hypocritical ’war against terror’.
Muslim women, more than most, often have to defy the most reactionary interpretations of their religion to make their voices heard. When some of their number, in areas governed according to Shariah law, have been sentenced to death by stoning for sexual relations outside marriage, members of the Committee for a Workers’ International have joined the world-wide outcry.
The Democratic Socialist Movement of Nigeria (CWI) has been particularly vociferous in its demand for such sentences to be annulled. But the DSM has carefully explained that the acceptance of Shariah law in Northern Nigeria has been partly due to the absence of a mass movement fighting for socialist change. Filling the gap, it has been seen as an antidote to the outright degeneracy of the Nigerian business and political community, reflecting what are seen as ’Western’, Christian values. (Of course, even in these areas, there are still many Muslims, like their Christian counterparts, up to their eyes in bribery and corruption!)
The DSM comrades in Nigeria also protested vociferously, alongside Muslim and other Nigerian women, against the Miss World Contest when it was being held in Abuja last November.
Socialists everywhere fight strenuously against reactionary ideologies, including the idea that women are inferior to men and should submit to their demands. But we also explain that it is the domination of one class over others – be it feudal land-owners or capitalist bankers and industrialists – that produces such ideologies and prejudices in order to perpetuate their rule. The dominant property-owning classes of capitalism and feudalism have always been a minority in society and have therefore needed all manner of devices to prevent the majority asserting its will. Throughout history, they have tried to maintain their own ’authority’ in society by inculcating authoritarian relations in the family, with women (and children) obedient to men.
In most modern societies, women have asserted their right to hold independent opinions and to have as much of a say in family decisions as the men. But there is still a long way to go. Socialists, in combating the remnants of feudalism in society, must also combat its reflection in the reactionary wing of Islamic fundamentalism. In fighting against capitalism and war, we must also fight the baleful influence of the Christian fundamentalist camp, in which Bush and Blair seem to find themselves. Even the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are against making war on Iraq at the present time, but Bush and Blair along with Aznar of Spain, Berlusconi of Italy and a few others want to go ahead regardless of the wishes of the people they claim to represent.
Mass working class action can stop wars
While we aim to build the maximum opposition to impending war in the Middle East, we believe that mass demonstrations alone are unlikely to stop the mighty machine of war. Mass action by the working class in the form of strikes and walk-outs is what is needed.
Strikes bring everything to a halt. They demonstrate that it is the working class which creates wealth and serves society. They also demonstrate the potential power of the working class to take wealth away from those who think it is their right to appropriate it for themselves. This is where we will differ with those on the peace marches (and in the parliaments) who oppose the war but want to maintain the status quo.
You cannot fight effectively against a war for oil and profit by joining hands with political and business leaders who do not want to challenge the capitalist and semi-feudal systems which are the breeding ground of national rivalry, conflict and oppression of minorities and of women.
We can share a common outrage at the idea of thousands of innocent lives being destroyed in Iraq, but defenders of the status quo will not agree with a struggle to replace dictatorship and war-mongering with a different class system – one in which private ownership and profit no longer determine policies and in which the majority for the first time in history actually owns and controls society’s wealth production and distribution. History has shown that the working class and poor people, with women playing a vital role, moving en masse can remove governments and also with a clear socialist leadership can successfully remove replace the class system which exploits them.
It was demonstrations and a general strike during Russia’s involvement in the First World War that brought down the semi-feudal Czarist regime in 1917. This revolution was sparked by women textile workers who walked out of the factories of Petrograd on International Women’s Day – 8 March (25 February by the old calendar) in protest at the dire privations the war was causing. A few moths later, it was further mass action by the revolutionary workers in October which brought to power the first ever socialist government – a government which ended capitalist rule and took Russia out of the imperialist war.
Capitalism means constant deprivation for most of the world’s women
It is the capitalist classes’ constant search for markets, for profits and, if necessary, for territory, which brings them into conflict with each other. It is their system which every year, even without wars, spends billions of dollars of public money (mostly contributed by working people) on weapons of mass destruction instead of on basic programmes to provide adequate food, education, health and welfare for the world’s population.
Women do have a special interest in changing the world. Through their labours in tilling the land, 90% of all food for home consumption is produced – half of the world’s food. Yet women receive one third of earned income, own one tenth of the world’s wealth and just 1% of the world’s land!
Seven out of every ten people scraping an existence on less than $1 a day are women. About the same proportion of the 850 million people in the world who are unable to read and write are women. Illiteracy amongst women in South Asia and in Arab states is between 55% and 60%. In countries like Sri Lanka, where literacy rates for women had reached a healthy level, statistics now show a steady decline as resources for education are continually cut back. In rural India, two thirds of women still have to spend long hours fetching and carrying water from wells and pumps at a distance from their homes.
Vast sums of money are spent on war by local as well as world powers, and local heads of government amass huge personal wealth. Last November, the king of poverty-stricken Swaziland spent $45 million of public money on a private jet in defiance even of a decision by his stooge parliament. (No parties are allowed in Swaziland). That is more than twice the health budget of his kingdom for a year, with 33% of the population HIV positive! (King Mswati, was also at that time being sued by the mother of an 18 year-old girl whom he had taken, against her will, to be his 10th wife.)
Throughout Africa, because of the lack of resources made available for preventative health care, millions of people are dying each year of HIV/Aids – two out of five of them are women. One woman in every 16 in Africa who gives birth risks dying from pregnancy-related causes. In Europe, the figure is one death in 1,400 births.
A world of difference
World-wide, in the past half century, women’s life expectancy has increased by 20 years to 68. But the average masks a world of difference across the continents. For one thing, new medicines which have helped to bring this about are far from available to all. Statistics, like the one for perinatal mortality above, show that the lot of women in the USA and Europe is almost literally a thousand times better than in the so-called developing countries.
Yet even in the ’developed’ world, millions of women, especially those who are alone with children and/or are part of an ethnic minority, are living in poverty. The struggle for a living wage as a minimum and for equal pay for work of equal value brings women straight into conflict with their penny-pinching bosses and with the governments that protect them.
A film made recently in Britain, called ’Dirty, Pretty Things’ and Ken Loach’s ’Bread and Roses’ graphically bring home the super-exploitation in the most prosperous countries of immigrants and women. Asylum-seekers without documents and under threat of deportation are preyed on mercilessly. Not only are the numerous women in this situation used as cheap labour in garment sweat-shops or as cleaners and chamber maids, they are frequently forced by their employers to give ’sexual favours’ (in effect raped by them) to avoid being handed over to the immigration authorities and deported.
Literally millions of women seeking a way out of poverty in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe have now been traded into prostitution in Europe and the USA. They are then usually at the mercy of the human traffickers who have organised their ’escape’, having to pay thousands of dollars to them from their ’earnings’. (Children also are sold into a similar kind of slavery). "Dirty, Pretty Things" also reveals the gruesome black market trade taking place in human organs. Lured with the prospect of receiving the necessary money and papers to be liberated from their nightmare underground existence, illegal immigrants will ’donate’ some internal organ such as a kidney. In cases of botched illegal operations, this can mean ’liberation’ from existence altogether.
More of the same
These stories will sound only too familiar in the ’Third World’ where organ sales, sexual harassment at work, abysmal wages, long hours and super-exploitation are rife. Non Governmental Organisations and trade union activists have managed only to scratch the surface in organising women workers. Courageous pioneers like Dita Sari, leader of the FNPBI union federation in Indonesia, who recently refused a $50,000 ’human rights award’ offered by Reebok, with strings, are seen as heroines. They set out to tackle the plight of the tens of millions of women who work like bonded labour in the sweat shops and Free Trade Zones of the neo-colonial countries.
In the vast production machine that is modern-day China, millions of women are among the mass migrations into the Eastern cities. There, many are housed like animals in no more than sheds called ’hostels’ and work long hours in conditions which permanently damage their health. Revolts take place and are quashed, probably on a daily basis, but new women fighters are undoubtedly arising to organise resistance against the abuses and humiliations suffered by their colleagues. As the country moves towards capitalism, the struggle for genuine socialism will take on flesh and inspire the rest of the world’s working and poor people.
Just as in the old days in the first capitalist countries, women workers who organised collective action in the wool and cotton mills gradually won shorter hours, better wages and decent conditions, so now, in Asia and Africa, in South, Central and even North America, workers in garment and shoe manufacturing, and even in I.T. and call centres, are battling to achieve union recognition and the right to organise against the bosses.
The anti-globalisation movement has taken up the cause of workers, predominantly women, who toil for a few dollars a week making expensive items for the big name multinationals. Their campaigns may get a minority of firms to make changes, but more often than not these are only cosmetic. Currently a battle is being conducted by workers in Puebla, Mexico, against the giant firm, Puma, over its decision to pull up and move out rather than recognise a trade union. This is just another example of how capitalists gear their operations solely to profit and never to the needs of the working people.
Although wages and job opportunities for women in Europe, Japan, Australia, and North America still lag behind those of their male counterparts, much has changed through the struggles of women workers. Also, we have seen a self-assertion of new generations of women and their insistence on the implementation and defence of rights that have been won, including the exercising of their right to challenge employers and contest unfair treatment at work.
The new generation of women are also less prepared even than their mothers to tolerate the sexism rife in capitalist society. It is recognised as something which humiliates women and perpetuates the desired image of the submissive wife, mother and sexual partner and also obedient worker.
But there has been a marked increase in the use of sexist material in advertising etc. in many countries, reflecting the lower level of collective struggle on this and on other issues that affect women. The going over of the leaders of the trade unions and workers’ parties, after the collapse of the state-owned planned economies, to the wholesale acceptance of capitalism was a big setback to the confidence of ordinary people in the ideas and principles of struggle and socialism. It has left women with far too few champions in the struggle for their rights and still minimal representation in elected bodies.
Their representation in parliament is minimal. In the world’s 176 parliaments, which are hardly bastions of genuine democracy, only 12 % of elected members are women (half a century ago it was 7 per cent). A tiny minority of them will be from working class origins. The vast majority are drawn from the traditional ruling class who have little experience of the double and treble oppression of women. Most of the women in parliament will be able to spend their time as they like, with nannies, maids, cleaners and cooks doing all the domestic chores that working and poor women have to do themselves.
It will take more than a few reforms like making changes in the hours of parliamentary sittings, or insisting on quotas, to encourage working class women to become elected representatives in anything like the numbers that would match their weight in society. It will be practical programmes for socialist change that inspire them to put up with the inconveniences of representing their class and a large element of assistance with child and family care while they participate in government at local, regional and national level.
Working women MPs who are genuine socialists will not accept the inflated salaries and privileges of the ’establishment’ but will dedicate themselves (and most of their salaries and expenses) to the struggle for socialism and as well as for totally equal opportunities for women. They would campaign inside, but more importantly, outside the debating chambers, as the members of the CWI elected to parliament in Southern Ireland and to local councils in Britain and Sweden do at the present time.
It has been in Sweden that women comrades of the CWI in the Socialist Justice Party have been conducting an increasingly successful campaign to combat sexism in advertising, the multi-million dollar pornography business and attempts by brothel owners to make new recruits to the sex industry outside schools. In Britain, the Campaign against Domestic Violence initiated by the CWI members in the Socialist Party has undoubtedly played an important role in increasing the awareness of how widespread domestic violence is in so-called ’advanced’ societies. It has also made it a trade union issue and conducted successful campaigns for the release of women imprisoned for killing violent partners in self-defence.
A socialist programme for women
All sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International are involved in elaborating a fighting programme of demands for women. It will always have inscribed on its banner the right of all women to equal pay for work of equal value, to live and work free from harassment and discrimination, the right to civil marriage and divorce and the right and necessary resources for real choices about living alone or with others and having children or not.
Although in many European and North American countries, a larger and larger proportion of the female population chooses to live alone, many young women are delaying or forgoing having children because of financial or practical difficulties. Women should have the right to decide both if and when to have children without any such considerations.
The right to contraception, to free abortion and also to fertility treatment and all necessary health care at the time of confinement should be guaranteed in all societies. The amount of state benefit available to mothers should be sufficient to cover the cost of bringing up children. This should also be linked to the demand for all education to be free of charge – including for adults who want to study – and grants to be available which give young students the chance to live away from their parents.
Young women everywhere have taken up enthusiastically campaigns initiated by CWI members on the issue of free education. Women have inevitably, as consumers and providers, been involved in numerous battles in the more developed countries against public/private financing or outright privatisation – in schools, hospitals, welfare and public transport. If allowed to go through, the subsequent cuts in all of these will slam the door firmly shut on any ideas young mothers might have of improving their lot.
With the world’s economy still in recession and a damaging war in prospect, the advancement of working class women’s interests is still an uphill battle. Only through a determined fight, of the kind women around the world have shown themselves to be capable of, can real victories be scored.
Only by organised mass campaigns can new advances be won. New parties of the working class must be built to take the place of the ones whose leaders have gone over to the side of market capitalism and even to war.
Successful revolutionary mass struggle on the basis of socialist ideas, with the working class playing its historic role in taking land, industry and finance into public ownership will transform society. Only then would it be possible to transform society and eliminate hunger, wars and poverty through the planned use of human and natural resources on democratic and cooperative principles. Only then, freed from drudgery and humiliation, will men, women and children be able freely to develop all their talents and abilities far beyond anything imaginable today.
As the great German-born revolutionary woman fighter, Clara Zetkin wrote: "Without revolutionary proletarian class struggle, no really complete women’s emancipation; without the involvement of women, no shattering of capitalism, no socialist re-construction."
Additional reading for International Women’s Day, 2003: Article by Christine Thomas written for Socialism Today, (Journal of the Socialist Party, England and Wales) on the relevance a century later of the life and work of Alexandra Kollonatai – pioneer of the struggle for socialism and women’s liberation.