International Women’s Day each year provides an opportunity to focus in depth on the condition of women, the class struggle against inequality and the tasks that face us in the immediate and more long-term future.
In Britain, the austerity measures of the Coalition have been nothing less than a brutal assault on working class women. Beginning with the Emergency Budget of June 2010, draconian measures “to fill the economic deficit” have hit women hardest, taking their jobs and slashing the benefits and services on which so many depend. And, with less than a quarter of the already-planned cuts implemented, the worst is yet to come. To come, that is, unless we put a stop to it.
More than 400,000 women’s jobs will be lost from the public sector alone, and hundreds of thousands more will go from the private sector. Pay cuts in the form of wage freezes and below cost-of-living rises will hit women workers hardest, concentrated as they are in low paid work. 64% of all low paid workers are women.
Women, statistically twice as likely as men to depend on benefits, will suffer most from government raids on welfare budgets. Many benefits under the axe relate to women’s lives directly – support during pregnancy, child care assistance via tax credits, child benefit. Women are the main recipients of housing benefits, including those supporting single-parent families, nine out of ten of which are women.
Decimated public services and unaffordable privatised ‘replacements’ are in the main those on which women heavily rely. Caring services and public transport are only two examples. The cumulative effect will be the further isolation, impoverishment and disenfranchisement of women, denying them access to education, jobs, healthcare and amenities and increasing vulnerability to exploitation, abuse and violence. Low income demonstrably increases the latter risk. Women in households with an income of less than £10,000 are 3.5 times more likely, according to UNISON, to experience domestic violence than those living in households with an income over £20,000.
Into this mix add the removal or reduction of state-funded legal support for cases relating to welfare benefits, debt, family law, education and medical negligence, coupled with the tightening of eligibility criteria for legal aid. Add also the drastic reduction of funds for voluntary organisations that provide services that support women.
Working women are increasingly aware of all of this but fewer by comparison feel certain that an alternative is possible. This International Women’s Day we must commit to making everyone aware that none of these things needs to happen and that now is the time for women and men to fight-back against the government, the banks, industrialists and public and private employers, asserting the right of working class women to jobs, justice and a decent life.
But, if that fight-back is to be successful, it cannot begin and end with short-term economic challenge, crucial as that is. We must win understanding that we need to change the very basis on which women live and how this might be done. The Charter for Women, supported by trade unions, trades councils and women’s organisations across the country, sets out what life might look like for women – in the wider society, at work and in the labour movement. It shows how campaigns built on the demands of women – for equality, independence, justice, representation, work, fair pay, education and health – can make broad, deep and irreversible changes to the lives of working women in Britain.
But campaigning on the Charter for Women cannot itself be undertaken in isolation. The demands of women are integral to those of all working people, as put forward in the TUC-adopted People’s Charter. They must also be heard, recognised and incorporated in the work of the coming People’s Assembly against Austerity (22 June, Central Hall Westminster) that aspires to mobilise millions against the ConDem government and build a movement for genuine change founded on equality and social justice.
In the long, hard battle we have to fight, there must be fundamental recognition of the centrality of the struggle for women’s equality. Capitalism world-wide depends on the exploitation of working women and on their unpaid labour. Without it capitalism’s profit ceases and its crises cannot be resolved. Further, capitalism’s continuance is assured only if working people are prevented from uniting to challenge it. The division between working women and men is not an option of capitalist strategy; it is the system’s life-blood.
And so, the struggle for women’s equality in Britain is linked with the struggle of women worldwide against a system that can only degrade and exploit them. Media coverage of women since International Women’s Day 2012 has graphically reflected this. It has been memorable and shocking, depicting extremes of violence, sexual objectification, eroticisation of murder, denial of rights and representation, displacement, impoverishment and denial of voice. But past year has also witnessed women fighting back – the women of India rising together against endemic violence, the women of Egypt returning again and again to demonstrate for a more just and equal future despite the rape and sexual assault meted out to intimidate them. Women have been arrested, tortured and killed for organising, speaking out and challenging their oppressors in many countries. And yet, as ever, the brave struggle still continues.
Helena Kennedy recently said of the position of women during her lifetime: “Although a lot has happened, not enough has really altered”. Now is the time to “really alter things” – win vital public support, defeat anti-women austerity measures, get rid of the government of the super-rich and begin to work towards a genuinely just, peaceful, democratic and socialist future that has seen out capitalism for ever. This is our task on every day of the year, not just on International Women’s Day. We have no choice.