(Photo: Amarnath Chandra)
Every year on March 8, International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated by civil society and women’s groups globally to highlight the social, economic, cultural and political achievements women have made, but also the challenges that women still have to face in order to achieve gender equality. While the United Nations has been celebrating IWD since 1975, what is often forgotten is that IWD emerged in the 20th century from labour movements in Europe and North America.
The history of International Women Worker’s Day goes back a long way, and some accounts link it to two major events, on which women workers took to the streets to challenge their exploitation. The first was on 8 March 1857, when garment workers in New York City gathered to protest for better working conditions, a 10-hour work day and equal rights. They were quickly met and shut down by the police. Later, from the turn of the 20th century onwards, women in industrially developing nations in Europe and America were increasingly leaving home to find paid work. But the jobs women could perform were largely sex segregated and limited to mainly the textiles industry and other domestic services. Their wages were low and their working conditions were grim. On March 8th 1908, the garment workers in New York picketed again, demanding the right of suffrage, and an end to sweatshops and child labour.
Inspired by these two strikes, German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed to the Socialist Second International in 1910 that March 8th be designated International Women’s Day to commemorate the protests and recognize working women from all over the world. In 1911, IWD was celebrated internationally for the first time by over a million people. Since then, some countries have even proclaimed the day a national holiday. For instance after the Russian Revolution, International Women’s Day was declared a holiday in the Soviet Union; and Chinese women began celebrating in 1924, paralleling a strong women's movement in the Chinese Communist party. When the women’s liberation movement began in the U.S. and Britain in the late 1960s, Women's Day was rediscovered and revived as a feminist holiday.
There have been so many advances for women made since the first IWD, but the unfortunate fact is that even in the most developed countries, women have still not achieved substantive equality: they are still not paid as much as their male counterparts, they are still not represented equally in business or politics and are disproportionately the victims of violence. Industries with a majority of women in the workforce continue to have lower wages and fewer organized workplaces. With changing times, ironically, few societies have changed the balance of household responsibilities, leaving most women to face the double workload of caring for the home and their careers.
(Photo: Belinda Bamford)
The situation is even worse for women in 'Factory Asia'. More than a hundred years after the first IWD was celebrated in the West, women on this continent are experiencing similar if not worse levels of exploitation: as their countries develop and become more integrated into the globalised neoliberal economy, women have been forced to enter the labour force to cope with increasing levels of poverty, dispossession and social exclusion, only to encounter terrible working conditions in factories, in plantations, in urban areas, and across borders as migrant workers.
In most countries in Asia, most women workers find themselves in the informal sector, devoid of any legal or social protecitons. Women workers enter highly segregated occupations, and many are confined to low wage, dangerous and informal work. In fact employers find many ways to take advantage of women's lower status in our societies, and actively seek to employ women, as they can be paid less than men and are less likely to protest their exploitation. In some countries, women are stigmatised when they work outside the home, so many are employed in elaborate home-based work arrangements that are connected to international supply chains. Across Asia, women suffer daily violations of their most basic human and labour rights, such as to their freedom of association, having their reproductive rights ignored, discrimination based on their gender, caste, ethnic origins, family status, as well as maternity discrmination, and gender based violence.
Although there may be international and domestic laws that are in place to protect women workers, more often than not implementation and enforcement are severely lacking, and a culture of impunity and corruption prevents marginalised workers, especially women, from obtaining any justice for violations of their rights. In addition, many of these women may be unaware of their rights due to lack of education and access to information. Capitalism, patriarchy and social constructs continue to marginalise women workers and hinder their path to equality and obtaining dignity in their livelihoods.
International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate women’s achievements and how far they have come, but also a day to highlight and make visible the ongoing struggles women workers continue to face worldwide, especially among the most marginalised in developing countries. We must not forget that this day was borne out of the movement of working class women, who stood together to challenge their exploitation. Millions of marginalised women in Asia are now also organising and fighting back. Let's celebrate their struggles and their bravery.
Milly Chang (intern) and AMRC