That the struggle for women’s equality and freedom from oppression is a thing of the past, a battle won, something ours mothers and their mothers did is one of the most cruel untruths of our time, observes Liz Payne, CP Women’s Organiser.
Two recent reports, the United Nation’s The World’s Women, published in (October 2010) and UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report, Adolescence: An Age of Opportunity (February 2011), make very sobering reading.
They show that women’s lives are still alarmingly bleak. We are, in general, poor and vulnerable and, in many places, isolated, overburdened and frequently unable to access the most basic of services. We are also without voice. Less than 20% of parliamentary seats worldwide are held by women. Only 11 of the 192 heads of state and 13 chief executives of the 500 largest corporations are female. Many major professions are still dominated by men. 18 of the FTSE 100 companies and almost half of the FTSE 250 have no woman on the board, according to the report, Women in Britain’s Boardrooms, (Davies, 25 February 2011). Less than one in five MPs in Westminster and only four of the 23 Cabinet ministers are women. And things are changing so slowly, says the Fawcett Society, that a baby girl born in this country today will be drawing her pension before she has an equal voice in politics. Women’s under-representation in public life is not just in the upper echelons but is reflected at every level of government, business and organisation across the world.
But this low visibility of women in public life should hardly surprise us, given the barriers we face. Violence against women – physical, sexual, psychological and economic – is, according to The World’s Women, ‘a universal phenomenon’. The abuse includes child marriage, sexual violence and domestic servitude. For women in the 15 to 44 age group world-wide, more death and disability are caused by individual acts of violence than by war, cancer, malaria and road accidents combined. More than 70 million women and girls worldwide have been subjected to genital mutilation.
Many years ago, when explaining our position in the world, we feminists used to say that women made up half the world’s population, doing two thirds of its work, for one tenth of its wages and owning a hundredth of its property. That this has not significantly changed is a tragedy that makes the whole world, not just women, poorer. We still do twice as much work as men, much of it domestic and unpaid, much of it indescribable drudgery, in what is often ‘a pre-dawn to post-dusk work day’. The gender pay gap is almost universal.
We suffer poor health and are more vulnerable. Almost 80% of the world’s 27 million refugees are women and children. They are also the majority of victims when natural disasters strike. Most people with HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Middle East are women. In some parts of the developing world, pregnancy and childbirth still carry a high risk of death or permanent injury. In a number of countries adolescent girls suffer from ill health in alarming numbers. For example, in nine countries in west and central Africa, 50% of 15 to 19 year old girls are anaemic and in India 47% of adolescent girls are underweight.
The majority of the 72 million children in the world who do not attend primary school are girls and two thirds of the 774 million who cannot read or write are girls and women. The UNICEF State of the World’s Children Report 2011 particularly highlights the plight of girls aged 10 to 19 years:
‘Intergenerational transmission of poverty is most apparent among adolescent girls. Educational disadvantage and gender discrimination are potent factors that force them into lives of exclusion, penury, child marriage and domestic violence. Around one third of girls in the developing world excluding China, are married before the age of 18; in a few countries, almost 30% of girls under 15 are married.
‘The poorest adolescent girls are also those most likely to be married early, with rates of child marriage roughly three times higher than among their peers from the richest quintile of households. Girls who marry early are also more at risk of being caught up in the negative cycle of premature child-bearing, high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity.’
In Iran girls can be married lawfully from their ninth birthday. For boys, the age is 15. Latin America has a high percentage of teenage brides and in parts of Ecuador, recent research has shown, almost 40% of girls aged between 15 and 19 were or have been pregnant.
Left and progressive people everywhere know that all of the above is both inexcusable and unnecessary. We have the knowledge, science, technology, medicine and all the resources we need to provide health care, food, clean water, education and a decent standard of living for everyone, everywhere. We know that what stands in the way of addressing the position of women (and all other inequalities) is the profit-seeking greed of capitalists and their corrupt system. We know too that women almost everywhere have been hit very hard indeed by the economic crisis and its aftermath, which threatens to reverse the many gains hard-won in years of struggle. We know that they are being made to pay, though they played no part in causing it.
In Britain, the Fawcett Society calculated that 72% of central governments cuts will come from women’s pockets. But, crisis or no crisis, it isn’t in the interests of the super rich to meet the just demands of women. They cannot reproduce their corporate and individual wealth in a fair, just and peaceful society and inequalities serve their interests well by dividing us when we could be speaking out and striving together for a very different world. It is our duty to articulate these things and to explain that the alternative for which we can both fight and win.
International Women’s Day (IWD) has always provided an opportunity for us to think about these things and, this year, as we both celebrate and commemorate more than a century of women’s heroic struggle, we renew the demands our sisters first made and have made down the years. At this time we remember the continuing heroism of our sisters across the world, facing violence, arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution for speaking up. Already this year there are so many examples of this– too many! In the past few weeks, we have seen women in Sudan physically attacked for peacefully protesting at segregation in professional life and female journalists arrested and imprisoned for no more than covering their story.
We have seen the women of Iran again come to the streets in thousands to claim a free and democratic future. And we have seen the masses of Egyptian and Tunisian women, young and old, veiled and unveiled, standing firm and persistent, day after day for a future without poverty, without corruption and without dictatorship. They are an inspiration. They show that we can together challenge our oppression, change every dismal statistic and build a just, democratic and peaceful future for us all. We must learn from their example, tell their stories in our movement and support their struggles in every way we can.
Here in Britain, more and more women too are being drawn into the struggle. We are realising what is happening to us. We see it very clearly. We have and will continue disproportionately to bear the brunt of cuts. Our jobs are being stolen, our benefits reduced and the vital services on which we so much rely are being taken away with cruel cynicism. The advances we made during past decades, our hard-won gains, are being snatched from us. We are being pushed back into our homes, overburdened with caring responsibilities and isolated physically, socially and mentally. We are increasingly vulnerable but our refuges and support projects are closing. Many of us cannot access help.
In response to what is happening many women are being brought into struggle for the first time ever. They are joining their trade unions, local women’s organisations and anti-cuts campaigns. Others, more experienced as activists, are finding new energy, new focus and direction. New voices are emerging. There is growing support for women’s campaigns. Each year more and more women come to London for the Million Women Rise demonstration against all violence to women, which last Saturday saw thousands on the streets. Women’s History Month is being celebrated for the first time this March in Britain. International Women’s Day is receiving wider and wider recognition and women trade unionists are campaigning for it to be celebrated as a national holiday.
As communists, we have a hugely significant role to play. We have to be there with the women in struggle. We need to help them to develop an understanding of the current situation, what has caused the crisis, who is to blame and why the cuts are unnecessary. We need to expose the media lies and ensure that women do not believe that they are in any way to blame for the current situation. We need to support the development of women to ensure that they are confident, able to express themselves and not excluded from participation in the left and progressive movements. We need to listen to women’s voices. We need to support and encourage women so that they are not disillusioned when they face short term defeat, when despite every effort the cuts are seen to go ahead and the jobs and services are sacrificed. We need to ensure that women and men together can move from focus on the economic, shorter term objectives to the longer term political struggle. We need to campaign for an alternative to what we have at present, promoting the Charter for Women and the People’s Charter and showing clearly how we might achieve that different future.
We, as communists, need to stand with women tirelessly and vigorously in our party organisations, in the pages of the Morning Star, in our unions, in our campaign groups and in our neighbourhoods. We need to see women, hear women and support women in their struggle, so that we can together work for a fairer future in which violence and oppression have no place.