India: The same issues that moved women to rally in 1910 resonate globally in 2009 Print E-mail
 Sunday March 8, 2009

A century later the issues are very similar

By Brinda Karat

On this International Women’s Day, the key issues bear a striking resemblance to the issues that moved women into action around the time of the Copenhagen Conference of 1910: jobs under threat, rising prices, democratic representation, and peace versus war

ON WOMEN'S DAY: As this year's International Women's Day dawns, the struggle for equalityand emancipation is a continuing story, more so in the context of the economic downturn.An ILO report says gender equality should be part of the policy responses to the crisis,including stimulus packages. In this photograph, a blacksmith is at work in Khammam, Andhra Pradesh, on Saturday (PHOTO: G.N. RAO)

March 8 is celebrated all over the world as International Women’s Day. Next year will mark the centenary of its observance. Women can certainly claim several historic achievements during the long struggle for equality and emancipation. But today in a strange twist of history, the same issues that moved women into action in 1910 resonate not only in India but across the world.

In the context of the devastating global financial tsunami and the consequent recessionary trends, hundreds of thousands of women – particularly in developing countries like India – who found new avenues of employment in export linked industries, find their jobs under threat. They are being asked to accept retrenchment, layoffs, cuts in pay, changes in their job conditions from regular to casual or contractual employment, in other words changes that will lead to a sharp deterioration in the quality of their already difficult lives.

In India, of the 18 million urban women workers, six million (according to NSS data) are employed in the leather, garments, or textile industries, precisely the industries that face a serious crisis. In Tirupur, one of Asia’s largest hosiery centres, 40,000 workers have lost their jobs. The majority of them are young women workers. In a survey conducted in Delhi by the All India Democratic Women’s Association, home-based women workers taking in outsourced work from garment or shoe manufacturing industries reported a sharp cut in work available and a depression in their already meagre piece-rated work (with many of them earning just Rs. 20 rupees a day for a 12 hour work day).

For these women and the countless others like them, the voices of the garment and textile workers of New York who marched through the streets of the city in 1908 demanding better work, wages, and conditions resonate through history. Struggles of women workers erupted in several centres of America and Europe. It was to commemorate the march of the women workers that two years later, at the Second International Socialist Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, a call for an Observance of an International Day to highlight women’s demands came from the German socialist revolutionary leader, Clara Zetkin. The 100 women delegates present from 13 countries included the first three women MPs elected to the Finnish Parliament, and also Alexandra Kollontai, representing the Petersburg textile workers, who later became the first woman member of the central committee of the Bolshevik Party. They endorsed the proposal and worked out a charter of demands, starting with the rights of women workers.

The relevance of those demands to the present context is striking. Governments, including India’s government, give corporate bailouts but refuse to address the urgent demands of workers for protection of jobs, wages, and working conditions. On this Women’s Day, the demands of working women will occupy centre stage, as they did a century ago.

Rising prices have come to the fore along with the issue of work. Recently, Indian women, in a charter addressed to all political parties ahead of the 15th general election, outlined the need for a change in policies to check the relentless rise in prices.

A long way to go: Women workers at a National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme work-site in a village in Udaipur district, Rajasthan.

A key issue raised in the 1910 Copenhagen conference was that of the women’s right to vote. All sections of women, from workers to aristocrats, protested through militant actions against the barriers that denied women the legal right to participate in elections. “The question of making Parliament more democratic” wrote Kollontai “that is, of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women was a vital issue.” These words echoed in the speeches heard on the streets of New Delhi when women gathered outside Parliament against the United Progressive Alliance government’s betrayal on the Women’s Reservation Bill.

Today the “question of making Parliament more democratic” hinges on increased representation of women. Governments have failed to redeem the pledge they made to women through the ratification of the Beijing declaration in 1995, which mandated them to ensure at least one-third women’s representation in elected bodies. According to recent data, women’s representation globally is 18.4 per cent. There has been considerable improvement, with 24 countries crossing the 30 per cent mark in Parliament. But in India patriarchy and short-sighted political leadership reign supreme, so much so that women constituted just eight per cent of the membership of the 14th Lok Sabha.

In the early period of observance of Women’s Day, women warned of impending war and stressed the slogan of peace against war. It was the struggle for ‘bread, not war” that, on Women’s Day in 1917, brought Russian women out in militant demonstrations against the Tsarist regime, heralding the beginning of revolutionary events that eventually led to the establishment of the first socialist state in the world.

The context in 2009 is of course different. Today we have the reality of a superpower that wants to carve the world in its image, on its conditions and command. In 2009 the images of the murderous bombing of the Gaza school compound sheltering women and children enrage the world. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the bloody trail of imperialist aggression on sovereign countries has cost the lives of thousands, including those of innocent women and children. On Women’s Day, the voices of solidarity with the movement for peace and with people’s resistance to the wars against their countries will be heard in thousands of rallies round the world.

Is there a deeper message in all this? Is it not true that inequality between nations, social classes, the rich and the poor, and between men and women has intensified? These are the questions women will be asking in the midst of the unprecedented economic crisis. The answers they find are certainly likely to have a wide impact on governments and political parties.

[Brinda Karat, Rajya Sabha M.P., is a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)]