Fighting for women's rights — defend the right to choose


This year, International Women's Day (IWD) coincides with the Labour Day weekend in Victoria and Tasmania. It gives an opportunity to highlight how much women have contributed to fighting for workers' rights and civil liberties, and how little they have been acknowledged for it.

Every March 8, it's traditional for different organisations to hold IWD rallies, brunches, or other feminist events. For one day a year, women, and some men, get together to celebrate the cause of women's liberation and consider the inequalities and injustices that still exist. But often the issues get largely ignored for the rest of the year.

In the black hole left by the absence of an organised women's rights movement, one day of rabble-rousing cannot make up for the lack of ongoing serious discussions and calls to action. But this is sorely needed because the fight for equality is not yet over.

A 2006 OECD report said Australia's women's workforce participation rate still lags well behind that of New Zealand, the US, Canada and the Scandinavian countries. In June 2009, 58.7% of Australian women took part in the labour force said the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). For men, the figure was 72.1%

Women are also much less likely (54.9%) to have full-time work than men (84.1%). Seventy percent of all part-time workers are women.

Women's average weekly earnings still lag far behind men's. The ABS said the gender pay gap has hardly moved in the past 25 years. In 1984, the gap was 18.5%. In May 2009, it was 17.4%. This is a decline in wage justice for women from 10 years ago, when. the gap was below 15.5%.

In a recent review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs admitted: "A 25-year-old man is likely to earn a total of $2.4 million over the next 40 years, more than one-and-a-half times the $1.5 million prospective earnings of a woman."

A 2002 study found that of the 500,000 Australian women not in paid employment, 32% said this was because of the lack of affordable childcare.

Women and their dependent children are increasingly falling below the poverty line. Despite this, governments have reduced funding for women's services and increased the number of hoops single mothers have to jump through to receive welfare payments.

Once their youngest child reaches six years of age, single mothers are required to work at least 15 hours a week to receive government benefits. In addition, parenting payments are reduced if they decide to move in with a partner, regardless of whether the woman will be economically dependent on them.

In the area of reproductive rights, the pro-choice campaign has achieved notable gains in the past few years, but has been under attack by politicians, the corporate media, and right-wing lobbyists.

Abortion has been decriminalised in ACT and Victoria. This has meant that women are able to choose to have abortions in the first 24 weeks. Later-term abortions are legal, but require the consent of two doctors. Other states are still to grant women these limited rights.

A woman's ability to decide to have an abortion freely is a basic human right. To deny it is to deny a woman's agency in making decisions for her own well-being. It is saying that a woman can't control her own body according to her choices because it offends a small, but very vocal minority.

A 2009 poll by the Australian Election Study found 57% of Australians support a woman's unrestricted right to abortion. Only 4% of the voting population oppose abortion outright, mainly religious minorities and people over 75.

People who support a woman's right to make decisions about her body and her life need to come together as a stronger force. If abortion is not fully decriminalised in Australia, politicians and the justice system can find loopholes to quash the gains and hard-won freedoms of the women's movement.

The recent prosecution of a Cairns teenager and her partner for procuring her own abortion is an example of the outdated and ludicrous laws that still exist. Such laws can be employed on a whim by police and politicians seeking to gain the moral high ground.

The attack on reproductive rights is designed to push women's status in society further down. Without a strong response, women's basic rights to safety, good health, privacy and independence are under threat.

In this context, we need to turn the lack of action to improve women's living standards around and rebuild a strong movement for women's liberation.