IWD 2021 | Women’s Struggles in a time of Covid Crisis

Sri Lankan Women Plantation Workers Protest

by Clare Doyle, CWI

A year has passed since the last celebration of working women’s struggle for a better deal in life. What a year of misery, death, and destruction!  But what a groundswell of hostility to the system of capitalism is building up!

Covid-19 has swept across continents and oceans, destroying lives and livelihoods by the millions. This disaster, that recognises no borders, far from being a great equaliser, has starkly revealed who suffers most in capitalist society. While the rich have still managed to get obscenely richer, there has been a slaughter of jobs and education for working class and poor people across the globe.

There is a barrage of statistics about where the pandemic has caused most deaths. It has come as no surprise that the most down-trodden and destitute are the most likely to die – refugees in camps, immigrants in hostels, garment-workers in sweatshops, along with black and Asian health-workers across Europe and the US. And the majority of these are women. In some countries, notably India, with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, and very poor health service, more women have died from Covid-19 than men. Tens of millions have no access to health care and even more women do not have to pay when they receive health free.

In a capitalist world, working class and poor women, and those from migrant backgrounds, will always suffer a worse fate even than their male counterparts. Their fight for a better deal gave birth to the decision by socialist women in 1910 to nominate a day to celebrate their struggle.

There had been historic strikes and demonstrations of working class women in the late nineteenth century in the US and elsewhere. The first years in which International Women’s Day was celebrated at the beginning of the twentieth century were marked by huge suffering brought on by epidemics, economic crises, and wars over raw materials and markets – in China, Europe, the Balkans, and parts of Africa

Tradition

The tradition was established by a meeting of women members of social democratic parties belonging to the Second International. The Socialist Party in the US organized a National Women’s Day in 1909 and the next year a women’s conference of the Second International agree to call an International Women’s Day in support of their demands. The first took place in 1911, but three years later the majority of the leaders of this same International were treacherously supporting the capitalists’ bloody war. Soon after its end, the odious figures at the head of the German Social Democracy, approved the murder of the heroic revolutionary leaders – Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

‘Red Rosa’ is the figure most revered and celebrated on 8 March by socialists worldwide. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s birth. The CWI begins its series of articles for International Women’s Day 2021 with one on the life and death of Rosa Luxemburg originally carried in one of the journals of Sozialistische Organisation Solidarität (Sol – the CWI in Germany). Another, from Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI in France) will cover the role of working women in the historic events of 150 years ago during the Paris Commune of 1971.

An article from New Socialist Alternative – CWI in India – will bring out the harshness of life and the involvement of women in important struggles over the past year. Other contributions on women’s struggles from CWI writers around the world will be carried throughout the week leading up to March 8th. On Sunday 7 March, the Socialist Party (England and Wales section of the CWI) and the CWI are hosting an on-line rally under the title, “Fighting to end women’s oppression”, with a range of international speakers.

For socialists, no International Women’s Day can pass without remembering the women textile workers of Petrograd who celebrated their special day in 1917 by downing tools and setting off on a march on the Tsar’s palace, demanding peace and bread. Within days, the Tsar was gone and the way was open for the overthrow of capitalism in Russia once the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky had won a majority in the soviets of workers’ and soldiers deputies. And what strides forward immediately began to be made for women in terms of equal rights at work and in society! A new generation fighting dictatorship and deprivation has taken to the streets in towns and cities across Russia. All the lessons of history must be retold and the need for a revolutionary party and leadership explained again and again.

Women to the fore

There is no absence of struggles, even in the time of Covid, which display elements of revolution. Following on from the heroic fight of the youthful pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, we have seen the outburst of anger at the wealth and autocratic rule of the Thai monarchy. Fearless young women have been to the fore in these struggles and in the #EndSARS movement that shook Nigeria last October.

Likewise in Myanmar, women teachers and nurses have taken a leading role in the general strike movement to oust the military. Andrew Tillett-Saks, a labour organiser based in Myanmar, is quoted in Labor Notes (26 February): “The sight of industrial workers, largely young, women garment workers, seems to have deeply inspired the general public, broken down some of the fear, and catalysed the massive protests and general strike we are seeing now.”

Women have also been in the front ranks of other recent movements to overthrow despotic rulers, such as in Algeria and Sudan. In Belarus, despite the Covid epidemic, and partly because of Lukashenko’s dismissal of its seriousness, week after week working class women, as well as wives and partners of imprisoned oppositionists, have shown their determination to end despotic, one-man rule.

While fearless in their confrontations with the forces of the state, all these women and their fellow male fighters, have one hand tied behind them. To carry a revolution against capitalism through to completion, a party with a clear idea of how to proceed and how to establish a truly democratic socialist workers’ government is vital.

No amount of academic seminars on 8 March and talk of women achieving high office in business or government circles are going to change the world for working and poor women.  There has been ‘joyous’ celebration of the appointment of first black woman to head the World Trade Organisation – a body thoroughly devoted to discerning what best serves the interests of big capital on a world scale. As H.T Soweto of the Democratic Socialist Movement (Nigeria) reveals in a detailed article carried on the CWI website on 19 February this year: “Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist neo-liberal economist with a brutal legacy in Nigeria. Her anti-poor economic policies, disguised as reforms, tightened the imperialist grip on Nigeria’s economy and by implication deepened social inequality and mass poverty in the midst of abundant human and material resources”.

As the CWI has also always explained, having a woman at the head of government in countries like India, for a long time under Indira Gandhi, and the UK, under Margaret Thatcher, did not mean the incomes and interests of working class and poor women were transformed.

Campaigns

Throughout its existence, the CWI has campaigned on the rights of working class women. Equal pay, for work of equal value, and the right to decide when and whether to have children, are primary. Good sex education, the availability free of charge of contraception, abortion and fertility treatment, are all vital. Decent housing is a basic right and needs to be genuinely affordable for working class households. The CWI links these demands with the need for a struggle to end landlordism and capitalism world-wide.

Last year saw an impressive nation-wide campaign in Poland on abortion rights, against the Morawiecki government, which has strong ties to the country’s powerful Catholic Church. This year, on 27 January, however, the judgment of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal was published which insists that women must proceed with giving birth even to fetuses with severe abnormalities. Abortions can only take place in the case of proven rape or risk to the mother’s life.

Women on the mass marches in Poland wore green headscarves, in solidarity with Argentina’s women’s movement that successfully campaigned to legalise abortion. Argentina’s ‘left’ president, Alberto Fernández, finally approved the right to abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. One campaigner outside the Senate building, at 4 am on 30 December, last year, commented: “The struggle for women’s rights is always arduous, and this time we even had to contend with a pandemic, so I am overjoyed with this result.” But lasting victories require an end to governments that use religion and prejudice to maintain the rule and interests of big business.

In Ireland, south, and north, the governments were compelled to finally publish reports into the horrors of the ‘mother and babies homes’ scandal. The official reports, though severely restricted, still shocked people around the world by their descriptions of the cruel treatment in religious-run institutions of young women who became pregnant outside marriage.

In Britain, the Socialist Party (and its predecessor, Militant) have campaigned long and hard, from the early 1990s, on the issue of domestic violence. They were able to get it accepted as a trade union issue, and continue to demand more resources to protect those fleeing violent relationships. This is particularly important during Covid lockdowns and isolation. Women and their children, confined to their homes, have been even more subject to violent, even murderous attacks. Cash-strapped local authorities have failed to provide adequate refuge for the victims.

According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, during the pandemic, incidents of domestic violence have gone up 50% in Brazil, 33% in Singapore, 30% in Cyprus, 25% in Argentina and a massive 300% in Hubei, China.

In Pakistan, on 8 March, CWI members will be on the streets with their banners and slogans demanding an end to the unimaginable atrocities against women and children carried out there, in a society still dominated by feudal lords and corrupt capitalist politicians.

In Sri Lanka, on International Women’s Day, the United Socialist Party (CWI) will renew its support for the women workers of the Hill Country tea plantations. After the workers’ long struggle for better pay, the Sri Lankan parliament finally agreed, last December, to 1,000 SL rupees a day (still barely US $5). But the estate owners have not agreed to the rise and inflation will already have cut in half what that meagre pay increase can buy.

Covid

In Africa, where women are heavily involved in subsistence farming, and where millions need to sell their produce in towns and cities, Covid closed markets. This not only cut off their incomes but drastically cut back basic food supplies for working people.

Women, with their children, constitute a majority amongst the 80 million people worldwide who have been forced from their homes by wars, like that in the Caucasus. They also face persecution, like that of the Rohingya from Myanmar, and environmental disasters. Now, in camps deprived of adequate medical facilities, women are shouldering the main burden of care for the old, the very young, and the infirm suffering not only from Covid, but other diseases, and from hunger.

Across the world, Covid infections tend to predominate amongst workers and carers in hospitals, care homes, and hospices. They have been amongst the first to die from Covid-19. The CWI sections everywhere have campaigned for full PPE and other health and safety measures in workplaces, a living wage for health-workers, and an end to private profit-making in health provision and pharmaceuticals.

Women have also been worst affected by the closures of schools and nurseries during the pandemic, even in the richest of countries. Millions have been forced back into the home. The Economist (27 February) reports that American women have fared worse than those in other rich countries. The drop in the extent of their participation in the workforce, relative to the male rate, is one of the biggest in OECD – the mostly rich countries.

One of the biggest scandals of the Covid pandemic is the unequal distribution, worldwide, of the vaccines developed to contain the virus. One hundred and sixty countries have no vaccines available, while the richer ones have a surplus. On present trends, most of Africa will not get sufficient vaccines before 2023. There is a vaccine war going on, analogous to the war over PPE at the beginning of the pandemic. It is conducted in the interest of prestige and profit. At the same time, TV reporters show children dying of curable diseases and also sheer starvation.

International Women’s Day takes place in a world of turmoil that brings out the best and the worst in human society. Socialists will redouble their determination to end all the evils in society brought about by the domination of a handful of the super-rich, property-owning capitalists. A programme of socialist demands, outlined in the newspapers, websites, and social media outlets of the sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International, is geared towards building a world free of discrimination, exploitation, poverty, hunger, disease, and war – a socialist world.