Putting women in the big picture

March 4, 1998

By Lisa Macdonald

Next time you see an opinion piece about how women are finally breaking into this or that male domain, or how young women are now "doing it for themselves", or any of the current epidemic of "you've come a long way baby!" propaganda, think about the big picture for a moment.

This week is a good time to do it: International Women's Day will be marked around the world with marches and rallies, the demands of which expose just how far women have yet to go to achieve equality.

Since the first IWD, the anti-colonial, civil rights and women's liberation movements have broadened its demands for the vote and political and economic rights to include full reproductive rights, equal access to education, freedom of sexuality, publicly funded child-care and more.

Those mass movements forced changes that led to significant improvements in almost all women's lives. Today, in the advanced capitalist countries, some women — those lucky enough to be white and well-educated — are faring better than ever as a result. An even tinier proportion of Third World women — those born into elite families — can also have comfortable and fulfilling lives.

But for the overwhelming majority of women in both the First and Third Worlds, things are now getting worse.

Women are increasingly at risk of rape and other human rights abuses because of an increasing number of wars (Amnesty International, 1995).

Between 20% and 50% of the world's women are physically abused. In the US, a woman is beaten every 18 minutes (Scientific American, 1994). As unemployment and poverty escalate everywhere, so too does domestic violence.

Some 100 million women are missing due to female infanticide and nutritional neglect of girls, and about 450 million women in the world are stunted due to malnutrition (compared to 400 million men) (World Health Organisation, 1994). According to the WHO, the escalating Third World debt and the IMF and World Bank's structural adjustment programs are the single greatest factor in the deterioration of women's health and well-being.

As governments in the advanced capitalist countries cut funding for child-care, health care, aged care, housing, education and social security, women are picking up the slack in the home.

As big business imposes its "free trade zones" and attacks workers' wages and conditions worldwide, women have become the new "flexible" (un-unionised, casual, contracted or outwork) labour force, and their struggle for equal pay goes backwards. In 1995, the gap between men's and women's wages in Australia began widening again for the first time since the 1970s (Australian Bureau of Statistics).

As Earth's natural resources are plundered, rural and indigenous women are being forced off their land into urban slums, refugee camps and "guest work".

As the far right and religious reactionaries take advantage of every shift to the right by mainstream politicians, the attacks on women of colour and on all women's rights over their bodies are increasing. More than 20 million women have unsafe abortions every year; 200,000 women die from them (WHO, 1996). Yet funding to international family planning programs is being slashed by most First World governments.

The living conditions of most women are deteriorating because the basic building blocks of gender inequality remain intact.

Capitalism developed on the back of — and depends for its survival on — the sexual division of labour. This basis of social organisation — which assigns women responsibility for most of the unpaid work, and therefore also the least valued, least secure waged work — is becoming more entrenched as capitalism runs out of markets, natural resources and sources of super-profits, and turns the screws harder on the world's population. Every day it becomes clearer that women, already at the bottom of the heap, get squeezed hardest.

This big picture reveals why the protest marches and rallies on IWD this year are so important and necessary. Without an organised, mobilised counterforce on the streets demanding justice and equality for all women, the screws of reaction will get tighter.

To completely and forever stop their inexorable turning, however, those screws must eventually be broken. The visions and goals of the women who initiated IWD so many decades ago — of gender equality and international socialism — are more relevant today than ever.

[Lisa Macdonald is a member of the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Party.]

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