Monday, March 7, 2011

One hundred years of International Women’s Day

This month, women’s rights campaigners around Australia and the world will celebrate the 100th International Women’s Day.

There could be no more fitting testament to the meaning of IWD than the words of one of the thousands of Egyptian women who joined the democracy protests in Liberation Square in Cairo last month. The people’s struggle to be rid of dictatorHosni Mubarak, she said, is also a struggle for women’s rights: "[Before] we had nothing, now I guess we will take everything."

IWD was born in a time of great social turbulence and massive struggles by ordinary people for a better life.  In 1909, a strike of 30,000 garment workers in the United States, mainly migrant women, almost shut down the garment industry. It lasted for three months and won the right to organise and bargain collectively, and improved wages and working conditions.

The next year, in 1910, women from 17 countries met at the International Conference of Socialist Working Women in Copenhagen and decided to organise an International Working Women's Day to mark the garment workers’ victory, and provide a focus for women around the world to campaign for the right to vote.

The first IWD rally in Australia was held in 1928, organised by the Militant Women's Movement. It demanded an eight-hour day, equal pay for equal work, paid annual leave and a living wage for the unemployed.

The last century of successful campaigns - for women’s right to vote, attend university and do paid work, for example - has given many women much to celebrate. But for the overwhelming majority of women in Australia, and even more so in the rest of the world, the demands of the first IWD have yet to be met. In fact, under the neo-liberal policies imposed by global capitalism since the 1980s – the attacks on wages and working conditions, welfare support for the elderly, disabled, unemployed and sole parents, affordable accommodation, and public education and health care - the IWD demands are becoming further out of reach for most women, especially poorer women, Indigenous women and migrant women.

Equal pay – long overdue

A major national focus for this year’s IWD is women’s right to equal pay.

Equal pay was first awarded by law to women in Australia in 1972. After almost 40 years, however - and even as some women become governor-generals and prime ministers - not only is equal pay far from a reality, but the gender pay gap is widening.

There are more women in the workforce and as the main family breadwinner than ever before. Yet, on average, full-time women workers earn 18% less than men: that’s 65 extra days each year that women would have to work to take home the same pay as men.

In some industries the gap is as large as 30%, and when you take into account part-time and casual work (women workers comprise about two-thirds of casual workers, three-quarters of whom are also part-time), the total gap is actually around 35%. Over a lifetime, that gap compounds into a big impact on women’s earnings and lives.
Almost without exception, workplaces with a high proportion of female employees have lower rates of pay. The advent of enterprise bargaining (which has reduced awards to mere “safety nets” for workers without bargaining power in the workplace — especially women) and the move to more individual contracts has severely disadvantaged women workers who are concentrated in less organised sectors.

To help turn this around, the Socialist Alliance is actively involved in efforts to rebuild a fighting trade union movement, and in campaigns for equal pay - such as the Australian Services Union’s current campaign. We also campaign for:
·         12 months' parenting leave fully paid by employer contributions to a publicly managed scheme.
·         Programs to address the under-representation of women in traditionally male occupations.
·         Governments and/or employers to provide free, 24-hour childcare and holiday care centres.
·         An increase in the minimum wage.
·         All improvements in wages and working conditions to be automatically generalised across each industry.
·         The extension of full-time and permanent employee entitlements to all part-time and casual workers.
·         The enforcement of anti-discrimination and affirmative action legislation to assist Indigenous women, non-English speaking background women and disabled women to be economically independent.
·         A living wage - which enables a decent quality of life, not just survival - for all welfare recipients and their dependents, and automatic indexation of all welfare benefits.

Women’s right to choose – abolish 19th century laws! 

Alongside economic independence, one of the biggest factors in determining women’s quality of life is the ability to decide whether and when to bear children. Yet this basic human right is still governed in Australia by centuries-old laws that are completely out of step with public opinion and practices. The fact that in most states anyone who has an abortion or assists a woman with one can still be jailed is ridiculous when, for the last decade at least, surveys have repeatedly shown that the majority of people support women’s right to choose.

Women always have and always will have abortions regardless of the law-makers’ decrees, but wherever abortion remains illegal, women – in particular poorer and younger women – will be subjected to unnecessary physically and emotional suffering. The refusal of state governments – shamefully led in NSW and Queensland by women – to remove abortion from the 19th century Crimes Acts is undemocratic and cruel, and must be reversed.

The Socialist Alliance campaigns for:
·         The removal of abortion from all Crimes Acts and Health Acts – there is no reason for the state to treat abortion any differently from any other simple medical procedure.
·         Abortion to be available safely, free of charge and immediately on request through the public health-care system.

Equal marriage rights in 2011 

All people have the right to marry regardless of gender or sexual orientation. This is recognised by the majority of people in Australia, with more than 60% supporting equal marriage rights. Despite this, the 2004 federal ban on same-sex marriage remains in place.

The campaign to overturn the ban is, however, getting stronger each day, and at a state level bills have recently been or will soon be introduced into the Tasmanian, South Australian, NSW and Victorian parliament to make same-sex marriage legal.

The Socialist Alliance is very involved in the campaigns for state and federal marriage equality bills, and calls for these to also include trans, intersex, and sex and gender diverse marriage rights.

Don’t just get angry, get involved

All issues are women’s issues, and every achievement in campaigns against racism, or imperialist war, or poverty, or any form of exploitation and injustice is a step forward for women’s rights.

In a world racked by war, global warming and inequality, the only really viable future for women – and all of humanity - is to struggle now to create a world based on peace, real democracy, social justice, and respect and care for the planet. The Socialist Alliance believes such a future is possible – and necessary – and is active in many communities and campaigns to help achieve that goal.

To find out more and get involved visit: