IWD 2023: Working class women and a political programme to overcome oppression
Women around the world will be marking International Women’s Day in a variety of ways. Protest demonstrations can be expected in many countries against the oppression that women face, not least in Iran, where anti-government movements have continued for months.
By Heather Rawling, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)
For socialists, IWD has a particular meaning and purpose born out of its proud history. In 1910, a Second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. Clara Zetkin, a leading German Marxist, at the time, proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day – an International Working Women’s Day – to campaign for better wages and conditions and women’s suffrage. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties and working women’s organisations carried the proposal unanimously.
The first IWD was held on 8 March 1911, with demonstrations in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. More than 1 million women and men took part. Women’s suffrage was a key issue of the day but not the only one. It was in response to the terrible conditions and low wages women faced at work and discrimination.
As the world economic crisis deepens, women today face similar issues and so international working women’s day is just as important. It is vital that it retains its socialist and revolutionary content. It is not enough to chronicle the inequalities caused by global capitalism, or to celebrate the achievements of women. The task for Marxists is to develop a programme and strategy to overcome oppression around the world and convince women and the working class to fight for that programme.
The conditions women face around the world today and their fightback
Capitalism globally, faces many challenges and crises. The greatest impact will be felt by the working masses and poor and women, especially. Capitalism around the world takes advantage of women’s caring role in the family to pay them less whilst they carry most of the burden of housework and caring in the home. And the recent strike waves in several countries, particularly in the UK, in response to inflation and attacks on wages and conditions and services have been inspiring. Women have responded tremendously in their unions, on the picket lines, rallies and demonstrations. It is no wonder. Because of the double oppression women face under capitalism, they have everything to fight for.
According to Oxfam, women are in the lowest-paid work around the world. Globally, they earn 24 percent less than men. And male workers are not well paid either. Oxfam estimates that at the current rate of progress, it will take 170 years to close the gap in pay. What an indictment of the capitalist system that is incapable of providing equal pay for nearly another 2 centuries. And that does not take into account the deepening global economic crisis and the attempts of capitalists and their representatives in government to drive down the wages of workers even further. Around 700 million fewer women than men are in paid work. Yet men also are low paid and face an attack on their jobs, wages and conditions. We fight for trade union rates of pay for men and women workers.
75 percent of women in developing countries are in the informal economy – where they are less likely to have employment contracts, legal rights or social protection. 600 million are in the most insecure and precarious forms of work. Women make up 39% of global employment but accounted for 54% of overall job losses during the covid pandemic. The virus significantly increased the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried out by women. And the hospitality sector employs a majority of women.
Women do at least twice as much unpaid care work, such as childcare and housework, as men – sometimes 10 times as much, often on top of their paid work. The value of this labour each year is estimated at least $10.8 trillion – more than three times the size of the global tech industry. Socialists call for good quality, flexible publicly owned childcare facilities under democratic control to allow women and men to participate fully in society. Freedom from household chores, through democratically, community run good quality services, as well as a choice of meal provision whether delivered or in local community run restaurants.
Women work longer days than men when paid and unpaid work is counted together. That means globally, a young woman today will work on average the equivalent of four years more than a man over her lifetime. But all workers work longer hours than necessary to earn enough to live on. We have the technology to shorten the working week, with no loss of pay and reduce the retirement age not increase it as governments around the world are attempting to do. A tremendous struggle is taking place in France against the Macron government over its plan to increase the retirement age to 64 years old.
The right to abortion
The US Supreme Court has overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling which recognised a constitutional right to abortion. This represents the biggest attack on women’s rights in the US for the last 50 years. It has been met with protests by tens of thousands across the country.
And it will be working-class and ethnic minority women, who do not have the resources to travel hundreds of miles to states where an abortion is still possible, who will suffer the most. Sixty-one percent of abortions are carried out on women from minorities.
The US already ranks at 36 out of 38 OECD countries for maternal mortality: 23.8% per 100,000 live births, behind Chile and Turkey; for non-Hispanic black women the rate is double. This is taking place in the richest country in the world, when measured by GDP, worth $20.89 trillion in 2022. In 2020, 861 women in the US lost their lives during or immediately after pregnancy. Criminalising abortion will make this much worse. We have already seen in Poland incidents of pregnant women dying because they have been refused an abortion that would have saved their lives. Or in El Salvador, where hundreds of women have been jailed for decades for having a spontaneous miscarriage – a dark glimpse of what could possibly face women in the US.
The attack on Roe is coinciding with the biggest onslaught on working-class living standards for 40 years. With soaring inflation, the potential to strengthen the struggle to defend and extend abortion rights by linking up with the workers’ and trade union struggle for decent pay, jobs and conditions is clearly posed. In the face of a united mass movement, reforms could be won as they were in many countries in the 1970s. However, as we are seeing with Roe, reforms gained can also be taken away again
Over the past fifty years there has been a trend toward the liberalization of abortion laws, particularly in the industrialized world. Each year, around seventy-three million abortions take place worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, according to a report by Women on Waves, approximately 25% of the world’s population live in countries with “highly restrictive abortion laws”—that is, laws which either completely ban abortion, or allow it only to save the mother’s life.
We defend the right to free, safe and accessible abortions. But women should also have the right to choose when and if to have a family. This includes access to fertility treatment, free childcare, equal pay, based on trade union rates and decent, affordable housing, and an expansion on public services internationally would make that possible. Women workers can play a crucial role in raising demands for reproductive rights in their trade unions as part of the struggle for free abortion and contraception.
Violence against women
Violence against women tends to increase in any emergency, including epidemics. Stress, disruption of social and protective networks, increased economic hardship and decreased access to services can exacerbate the risk of women suffering violence
The Eastern Mediterranean Region has the second highest prevalence of violence against women (37%) worldwide. The Region also faces more humanitarian emergencies than any other part of the world, with a huge number of refugees and internally displaced populations.
In the case of COVID-19, isolation, restricted movement and stay-at-home measures to contain the spread of the infection had a particularly acute impact on women. The chances of women and their children being exposed to violence dramatically increased, as family members spent more time in close contact, and the risk grows even greater when families also have to cope with potential economic problems or job losses.
Displaced and refugee women, and women living in conflict-affected areas are also particularly vulnerable due to high population density, close proximity in living conditions; poor water, sanitation and hygiene; and limited health, social and protection services. Wars in Syria, the Ukraine, Somali and elsewhere, have made even more women more vulnerable. And the recent earthquake in Syria/Turkey will also bring particular problems for women.
But women are fighting back. There have been spontaneous protests against violence. In the UK thousands of mainly women protested against the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer during the covid pandemic. In November 2022 thousands of protesters around the world took to the streets to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
In Istanbul, police broke up a rally calling for an end to violence against women and for Turkey to return to a treaty aimed at protecting them. The officers detained dozens of protesters during the rally.
In Spain, demonstrators gathered to also denounce violence against women. At least 1,171 were killed in the country by their partner or ex-partner since the official count began in 2003.
During COVID-19 lockdowns, the number of women in Mexico seeking help at shelters for victims of violence has jumped by 80%. Thousands protested against the violence.
A mass movement can be built to challenge sexism and gender violence. Trade unions, the main organisations of the workers’ movement, can be mobilised to oppose domestic abuse and call for policies and services to support women experiencing sexism and abuse. Trade unions, where they are organised, democratic and active in defence of their members, have shown how sexism in the workplace can be fought. The current strike waves where men and women stand shoulder to shoulder on the picket lines are an opportunity to raise issues affecting women. We call for fully funded services and support for all women affected by domestic violence, abuse and rape, including refuges and permanent, affordable social housing. We also call for specialist training for all workers and bodies coming into contact with abused women
Afghanistan and Iran
The Taliban once again coming to power in 2021 has meant a relentless campaign against women in particular. In Afghanistan, 97% of the population live in poverty, two-thirds need humanitarian assistance, 20 million face acute hunger and parents sell kidneys for cash to feed their families. By banning women from working for NGOs, they are denying essential, life-saving services to women and children.
Women have been among those punished in public floggings and have demonstrated extraordinary courage and resilience in challenging the Taliban. Men have also taken a stand beside them.
And women are fighting back against oppression on all continents
On September 13, last year, 22-year-old Jina “Mahsa” Amini was arrested by Iran’s morality police for “improperly” wearing her hijab, and severely beaten. She died three days later while still in police custody. Almost immediately there was an outcry and women tore off their hijabs, and cut their hair. Their protests inspired the youth of Iran and also brought workers out on strike against a tyrannical regime. Even according to the Forbes magazine, a mouthpiece for international capitalism, “What started as an outcry against the regime’s treatment of women has evolved into a revolutionary movement calling for regime change, recognized throughout the world.”
The Women and Youth Committee of Sanandaj Neighbourhoods’ initial appeal called for the formation of popular councils throughout the country. If this appeal is seriously followed up, not just by the youth, but by the working class and poor, it could be a decisive development
The Women and Youth Committee in Sanandaj aims to unite the revolutionary youth movement in a nationwide organisation and to give it a united programme taking up economic, social and democratic demands, and it consciously appeals to workers and others across Iran.
The democratic demands must include full equal rights for women, including the right for women to wear what they want, to be allowed to choose where they work and travel. This is a key question as this revolutionary youth movement was sparked off precisely against the repression of women, and women, especially young women, are heavily involved in the struggle.
At the same time, the councils and the movement must also have a discussion about what can come after the theocratic regime. The CWI argues for a government led by the workers, poor and youth.
This means that the workers’ movement, the poor and the revolutionary youth must stand for the replacement of the present regime by a provisional government made up of representatives of the working class, youth and poor. A workers’ government would immediately take action to implement the revolution’s basic demands, including full equal rights for women, and begin the socialist transformation of Iran, which would have an international echo not just in the Middle East but worldwide.
Women in forefront of industrial struggles
Women have been to the forefront of trade union struggles in Europe also, as public sector workers have been under attack in UK, Germany, France and other countries. In the UK, nurses in the Royal College of Nurses have struck for the first time over pay, conditions and in defence of a broken National Health Service, once the envy of workers and the poor around the world. Ambulance workers, teachers, junior doctors, university staff and civil servants are also striking over pay and conditions, with women on the frontline. Women suffer doubly from cuts in the public sector, as they are the majority of workers and users of the services and because of their caring role in the family. We can see what is needed to deliver the vital services our communities and families need. It is often the most oppressed that fight the hardest for change. Over half of trade union members are women and, especially in the public sector, women have been to the fore in the rising wave of strikes. Many who have never been on strike before are turning out in huge numbers to picket lines and rallies – linking the demands for increased resources and staff with the need to tackle low pay. Workers’ support for the idea of striking together and the desire to force the bosses and the government to concede to their demands has helped drive union leaders to begin coordinating action.
In France, Macron’s attempt to increase the pension age to 64 years has met with massive opposition. Macron’s legislation would penalise women for breaks in their career to have children. And that is why women have been prominent in the protests against pension reform. Two million people demonstrated across the whole country for better wages and against pension reform. One in four public sector workers have been taking strike action.
In Germany, many workers have been striking recently. 100,000 postal workers struck to put pressure on their employers during wage negotiations. Hospital workers, mainly women, have been waging a struggle for more staff in hospitals for several years. They have had victories in a number of hospitals, with “health safety contracts” to increase the number of staff. In some areas, hospital workers now belong to the most combative workforces in the public sector and play an important role in the present strike wave. In Berlin, for example, on February 9th, a joint warning strike took place of public sector workers. This involved hospital workers, refuse workers, water workers and university workers, with thousands marching through the capital in a show of working class strength.
The world is facing economic, political, social and environmental instability. The capitalists can find no way out for their system that does not involve an attack on workers and masses around the world. And women will bear the brunt of this onslaught, unless a socialist alternative is fought for.
October 1917 inspiration
We can draw inspiration from the Russian Revolution of over 100 years ago. Between 1917 and 1927, the socialist government passed a series of new laws giving women formal legal equality with men. Marriage was made an easy registration process based on mutual consent. The concept of ‘illegitimate’ children was abolished. Free, legal abortion was made every woman’s right. Homosexuality was decriminalised. Communal crèches, laundries and canteens were established to free woman from domestic chores and free to develop relationships without economic or social considerations. Many of these policies were far in advance of many countries today.
We call on women and all oppressed sections to unite with the working class in all countries. Only the working class has the power to overthrow the capitalist system and end the double oppression of women. We demand a world with a shorter working week, trade union rates of pay, equal pay and no to austerity through inflation, free and accessible childcare and the right to free and accessible abortion and contraception.