'Stop the war on women!'



"This year's International Women's Day [IWD] takes place in a very dangerous political climate for women — both in Australia and internationally. The launching by the United States of a socalled war against terrorism — in fact a war of terror against the Third World — should ring very loud alarm bells for those of us who believe in equality and justice. War is particularly bad for women."

In this way, Lisa Macdonald, addressing the IWD rally in Sydney on March 9, summed up the themes of such rallies across the country. Usually held on the closest Saturday to March 8, which is International Women's Day, for some years the rallies have been the most significant feminist demonstrations in Australia.

The largest rally this year was in Sydney, where the crowd swelled from 600 to nearly 1000 as protesters wound their way through the city. On the same day 500 marched in Brisbane, 150 in Perth and there were 80-strong protests in both Newcastle and Hobart, while a speak-out was held in Darwin. Rockhampton's March 9 IWD march was attended by 60 protesters, bigger and louder than the inaugural march in 2001.

Rallies on March 8 in Wollongong and Canberra each attracted 150 people, while 400 women and men marched in Melbourne. In Adelaide, Alice Banders reports, a small "women against war and racism" protest was held on March 8, while a "celebration", with no demands, organised on March 9 attracted 200 people.

Most of the rallies took up the theme "Stop the war on women", highlighting the suffering of women as a result of the Coalition government's refugee policy, the US-led "war on terrorism", and the falling pay, conditions and reproductive rights of women worldwide.

"[Fighting war and racism] reflects the most pressing problems facing women today", Wollongong IWD collective convenor Freda Botica told the Wollongong rally, from which Nicole Hilder reports. "It is the women and children who are suffering from these two scourges against humanity."

Speakers at rallies around the country agreed. Many protesters came to demand freedom for refugees. "The situation at Woomera [detention centre] is appalling", Yasmin Ahmed, who visited the centre as a legal volunteer, told the March 8 Adelaide rally.

"The struggle of the women in detention is a struggle for all of us", the Refugee Action Collective's Rachel Evans told the Melbourne rally, from which Margarita Windisch reports. In Perth, Sarah Harris reports that Queer Radical's Elena Jeffries spoke of the plight of lesbians (and gay men) fleeing homophobic states, only to be locked in camps in Australia.

Reporting from Hobart, Sophie Fisher explains that protesters attempted to burn an effigy of immigration minister Philip Ruddock, but only the "head" was flammable. Improvising, protesters jumped on the effigy and crushed it before marching to Parliament House lawns for pro-refugee street theatre.

Solidarity with the refugees was accompanied by solidarity with those suffering under the US-led military offensive.

"Don't be fooled by the "war on terrorism", WA Greens MLA Dee Margetts told the Perth rally, "This is an attack on people of different cultures, who believe in community and are against 'casino' capitalism".

Dr Samina Yasmeen described to the Perth rally the situation faced by women in Afghanistan. Life is very hard for Afghan women, she said, because of the US bombing and the anti-woman Northern Alliance.

In Melbourne, Iraqi refugee Surma Hamid described the honour killings of women by dictator Saddam Hussein's cronies. The US-led blockade on Iraq just made things worse, Hamid said, because it was killing thousands of women and children. These sentiments were echoed in Sydney by Layla Muhammed from the Worker Communist Party of Iraq, who said: "Let's make March 8 a day of struggle, of challenging segregation, honour killings and all attacks on women."

From Brisbane Robyn Marshall reports that Joan Shears spoke at the rally about the attacks on democratic rights in Australia and overseas since September 11.

Speakers around the country also highlighted the worsening situation of women workers. In Melbourne, Michelle O'Neill, state secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, enthralled the crowd with her story of women textile workers at the Hugo Boss factory, who were sacked after years of hard, skilled work. She reminded protesters that it was an 1857 struggle of women textile workers that led to IWD.

In Sydney, where one of the demands of the rally was to end the casualisation of the workforce, Greens' activist Sylvia Hale pointed out that "women are still concentrated in low-paid, clerical or retail jobs. Women hold 72% of part-time jobs, while only 33% of full-time workers are women".

Attacks on women's right to access an abortion, and other reproductive rights was an aspect on the "war on women" that protesters condemned. In Rockhampton, Erin Cameron reports, "the loudest chant was in support of a woman's right to choose".

In Brisbane, feminist activist Katrina Barben detailed the case of an Ipswich teenager, pregnant as the result of a rape, who was denied an abortion because she was 22 weeks pregnant. Barben also attacked the Catholic Church for its role in forcing the withdrawal of in-vitro fertilisation treatment from lesbian and single women.

Other issues raised at the rallies included the rights of women working in the sex industry, abolition of women's services including the closure of Brisbane's Domestic Violence Resource Centre and the worsening situation of indigenous women.

From Green Left Weekly, March 13, 2002.
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