08 March 2011
100 Years of International Women's Day
In March 1911, the world saw the first marches and mass mobilizations commemorating International Women's Day, rallying to the call a year before by socialist leader and feminist Clara Zetkin at the 2nd International Conference of Working Women, to dedicate one day of each year to women’s rights and demands. In several countries, women pushed for the right to vote and to hold public office, the right to work and for an end to discrimination in the workplace.
A hundred years hence, women continue to hold their place firmly and defiantly in the struggle. While many gains have been won, deeply embedded and prevalent discriminations continue to keep great numbers of women especially in the South largely marginalized and invisible. Many other obstacles arising from systemic structures of exploitation and oppression lie in the path of our political and economic empowerment.
The centenary of the International Women’s Day events finds us in the period of neoliberal globalization, an age of increasingly widespread impoverishment as a handful of Northern states, transnational corporations, banks and national elites amass and consolidate wealth in unprecedented measure. It is a period when the environment and people’s rights and well-are being swept aside by the primacy of the free market and trade agenda. It is a time when women’s bodies and faculties, labor, time and energies are exploited as never before by the neoliberal policies that maintain this unjust dispensation.
The unhampered flow of goods and services has seen Northern governments and businesses capitalize on employment-scarce South countries for the cheapest production costs. This includes exploiting conditions where, due to persistent gender discrimination, women count among the most lowly paid. So too, are women targeted by labor–contracting arrangements with the intent of cutting business costs, which results in violations of such basic rights as the right to regular, secure employment and to the full range of social benefits guaranteed by law. Women are known to spend more than 64 hours a week on paid labor alone.
Neoliberal government policies of cutting social service budgets and privatizing essential services, at times in compliance with debt service obligations, also harness women’s labor and time, exploiting the devalued costs of maintaining households and individuals. Women pick up the slack by finding non-market substitutes for goods and services that households can no longer afford when government surrenders its public service mandate to profit-seeking private interests such as water and energy companies. Surveys show that more than half of women’s total work time is spent on unpaid, non-market work from childcare and food production to household chores and caring for the sick and the elderly. Women already spend, on average, 50-70 percent as much time as men on paid, market work, but also, almost twice as much time on unpaid domestic work.
Increasingly desperate conditions render women highly vulnerable to various forms of dirty, demeaning and dangerous work arising from and promoted by neoliberal globalization. Large numbers of women are in the informal sector, without social security protection. Millions of women are also in labor migration, their billion-dollar remittances propping up a succession of cash-strapped and debt-dependent Philippine administrations but still without effective safeguards against economic exploitation, physical maltreatment, psychological and sexual abuse.
Systemically rooted gender biases intersect with the heightened poverty of women resulting from such policies. Gender injustice blocks our way to economic justice as we remain targeted as women, by domestic violence, trafficking, harassment and rape; as grassroots women die in the thousands from unaddressed basic and reproductive health needs; as rights to equal pay and work are still violated because we are women.
Conditions of gender and economic injustice combined put women in positions of particular vulnerability that intensify in times of crisis. The global financial crisis continues to marginalize women economically -- eroding their livelihoods and food production, adding to their debt burdens, increasing their exploitation in both paid and unpaid work. Another global crisis is upon us, a crisis caused by the North’s appropriation of the earth’s atmosphere and natural resources, and whose consequences we are now being made to pay. The meager finances largely loaned out to South countries for climate adaptation will redound to extracting more of the labors of women who, by default, often compensate for unmet human needs in the face of any crisis.
The many rights and freedoms legally guaranteed today in internationally recognized covenants and treaties attest to the strides women have made over a century of struggle. But as we take stock of where we are today, we also realize the extent of the breach and more dangerously, the way these infringements on our rights are promoted by the pursuit of neoliberal policies. Disappointingly, it is business-as-usual for the Aquino administration, which has enshrined privatization – euphemistically called public-private partnerships -- front and center of its economic development policies. It has also not moved significantly beyond the Conditional Cash Transfer program when it should have embarked on a thoroughgoing process to substantively address chronic poverty and social injustice. It has not spoken on repealing the automatic appropriations law which has prioritized debt payments over any public need since the Marcos years or possibly cancelling illegitimate debts that only lined private pockets, damaged the environment and dislocated people and communities.
While we expect government to fulfill its legal obligation of respecting, protecting and fulfilling our rights, we also need to claim these rights lest they move farther beyond our grasp. We know well enough from lessons of a century’s duration that the rights and entitlements women enjoy today, limited as they may be, not only came from hard struggle but have to be constantly claimed, defended and expanded.
To paraphrase Clara Zetkin, the reforms we win are important because they at least ease the burdens that economically disadvantaged and marginalized women bear, but the push has to go farther to change the political, economic, and socio-cultural systems and structures – patriarchy, class exploitation, and national oppression that oppress and discriminate against us and realize full economic empowerment especially of women in the grassroots.
We need to act now, and act resolutely, building greater depth and breadth into our movements, aiming for higher levels of resistance, stronger organization and firmer resolve. Economic empowerment to grassroots women and women of the South!Stop the privatization of essential services!Repeal the automatic appropriations law! Cancel all illegitimate debts!Gender justice, economic justice, climate justice NOW!