International Women's Day: unity does matter

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International Women's Day: unity does matter

Comment by Sarah Stephen

PERTH — In Perth this year there will be two International Women's Day rallies on March 11. One is the annual march and rally organised by the IWD Collective, the other is a sit-down rally organised by the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) and the National Council of Women (NCW), a group linked to the Liberal Party.

The scheduling of two similar events within a couple of hours of each other, and the process by which this occurred, is something that the Perth IWD Collective believes should not be repeated.

Despite the collective holding open, well-publicised organising meetings since November, WEL and NCW made no attempt to contact the collective before a second event was organised for March 11. When the IWD Collective heard about the second rally, its members requested a discussion with WEL and asked it to consider either rescheduling the rally (possibly to the official IWD, March 8, or to the weekend before) to maximise attendance at both rallies, or participating in the annual march and rally.

Although WEL decided that a discussion was not necessary, there was some informal discussion of the problem during the February 16 WEL meeting, which was attended by two IWD Collective members, and a compromise was reached. It was agreed that there would be cooperation around the publicity for both events and that a meeting would be held after March 11 to assess the impact of holding two rallies on the same day.

Why two similar events?

IWD Collective members, some of whom have helped to organise the IWD rallies in Perth for years, point out that a common event would have been far preferable because it would have united all those who recognise the importance of IWD as an opportunity to raise and discuss issues of concern to women, share campaigning experiences and present a common face against gender injustice.

The WEL leaders in Perth have presented many "justifications" for organising a separate event, including that some women are too old to march and that some were offended by the issues raised at last year's march and rally, such as access to abortion and lesbian rights. However, no adequate explanation has been presented for holding a separate rally just hours before the annual march and rally.

Of course, no one feminist organisation or perspective "owns" IWD, but, given the purpose and aims of the day, feminists have always striven to cooperate in the organisation of different events so that one does not adversely affect the others.

WEL says that its event complements, rather than conflicts with, the annual march and rally. It says that women who are older, more conservative and don't want to march will go to the WEL rally and others will go to the march. This may be WEL's intention, but it will not happen this way.

Both events are rallies and both take up political issues of concern to women. Thus, those who want to take public action on IWD will be forced to decide: do they attend both rallies or just one, and which one?

Worse even than the confusion that will be created by the duplication of resources, time and energy on a day on which feminists have generally sought to unite is the fact that both rallies will inevitably be smaller. This matters because the very reason for IWD — a day intended to draw people's attention to and campaign against discrimination against women — dictates that it is most successful if it unites in a public action the largest possible number of people. A rally that brings together a large number of people demanding women's rights is far more empowering for the people involved and has far more impact on public opinion than two smaller rallies on the same day.

While unity in action is not always possible, women's liberationists strive for it because it is more effective. And if there is one day on which it makes sense to make a special effort to achieve such unity, it is IWD.

Political differences

The organisational divergence in Perth this year does reflect political differences. WEL has argued that it is more important and "ground-breaking" to work with the Liberal-dominated NCW and mobilise conservative women on IWD than it is to work with the feminists involved in organising the annual march and rally.

Unlike the annual rally, which will address a wide range of issues of concern to women, the WEL-organised rally will focus on the issue of violence against women. It is to be opened by the Liberal Minister for Women's Interests, June van de Klashorst, and will be chaired by Labor MLA Diana Warnock.

The inclusion on the platform of an MP from a party which, in federal and state government, is slashing public child-care services, women's jobs, rural services, sole parent and other welfare payments, health and education funding, women's services and equal opportunity organisations, not to mention its assaults on indigenous and immigrant women, reflects an entirely different "feminism" from that advocated by the Perth IWD Collective.

The annual IWD march and rally will be demanding: Reverse cuts to welfare and women's services; end restrictions on sex workers' democratic rights; equal pay for equal work; more funding for public child-care; abolish all laws relating to abortion; and paid maternity leave.

There will, as usual, be many different sorts of events on IWD this year which feminists can (and should) attend. For those people who support the campaigns in workplaces, on campuses and schools, and in the community to stop state and federal governments' attacks on women's rights and living standards, joining the annual march and rally is a must.

Alongside a variety of speakers at the start and end of the march through the city, the World March for Women 2000 will be launched with the distribution of postcards to the United Nations calling for an end to global poverty and violence against women.

For more information about the events, and how to get involved in organising them, phone Jemma on 9371 3791 or Trisha on 9227 7367, or e-mail <iwdwa@start.com.au>.

[Sarah Stephen is a member of the Perth IWD Collective 2000.]