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Fighting for Gender Equality on International Women’s Day – and Beyond

Today’s International Women's Day mobilisations echo back to the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war protests, the uprisings against colonial powers, and the more recent uprisings across Africa’s north and the Middle East. Often missing from the history books, women were also in the forefront of these movements.

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Ernestina Enriquez Fierro leads a group of marchers during an International Women’s Day march organised by mothers of disappeared daughters from the border city of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico City, on 8 March 2013., AP/Dario Lopez-Mills

There is an added sense of urgency to International Women’s Day this year. On 8 March, millions of women across the world will take to the streets, step off the job, or otherwise demonstrate their collective resistance to the resurgence of patriarchy and attendant rise in misogyny, racism, bigotry and intolerance.

The call responds to other recent women-led protests and demonstrations. In Iceland and France thousands of women walked off their jobs to demand equal pay for work of equal value. In Poland, nearly six million women marched and won a reversal in proposed anti-abortion laws. Across Latin America, women are joining not only to demand an end to gender-based violence but also to protest the murder of environmental and indigenous rights activists such as Berta Cáceres, who was killed in Honduras just over a year ago. In Russia, women are resisting attempts to decriminalise domestic violence.

And in January this year, women, men and children in over 600 cities worldwide stood up for equality, reproductive rights, peace, justice and freedom. This latest mass mobilisation may have been triggered by the result of the US elections, but the issues behind it were with us long before 19 January 2017.

The road to Trump has been paved by the rise of corporate power, through the systematic dismantling of civil liberties, political and economic safeguards – including the right for workers to organise collectively through trade unions.

The current global economic model commands cheap labour, unregulated markets and the breach of the democratic contract between governments and peoples. It is deliberate in creating division across lines of gender, race, ethnicity, migration, and class.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the exploitation of the paid and unpaid labour of women. Women, especially women of colour and migrant women, are overrepresented in unorganised, low-paid, informal and insecure jobs. Women working in global supply chains put the clothes on our back, the food and flowers on our table and care for our dependents. They do so for poverty wages, during long working hours and in conditions that sometimes mean not knowing whether they will make it home alive. They will have no security in later life: 40 per cent of women in wage employment are unable to contribute to social protection measures, including pensions, maternity protection schemes, occupational disease and accident insurance.

Anti-worker, anti-women economics

Eager to attract foreign direct investment, governments are setting up special economic zones, where multinationals operate outside of national laws and regulations, including labour laws, and where the largely female workforce experiences exploitative and unsafe working conditions.

Violence and fear is used to control women’s labour and suppress their activism, forcing them into settling for poor quality, dangerous jobs rather than no job at all.

Beyond this, the majority of the world’s working women are eking out a subsistence living in the informal economy. Their work contributes enormously to GDP, in contrast to the tax-avoiding operations of multinationals. But more often than not informal economy workers are treated as a public nuisance – harassed off the streets and subjected to physical violence by public authorities.

As well as subsidising the global economy through cheap, undervalued paid labour, women are doing so through their unpaid labour. Similar in impact to the structural adjustment programmes of the 1970s and 1980s, austerity measures and privatisation of public care services are again leaving women to shoulder the lion’s share of caring.

The actions we need our governments to take are clear: regulate corporate power, introduce minimum living wage floors and fund gender-sensitive universal social protection systems. Guarantee freedom of association and collective bargaining. Protect freedom of assembly and expression. Invest in care as a public good and collective responsibility – but also as a means of closing gender gaps, and stimulating economic growth and productivity. Outlaw gender-based violence in the world of work.

This simply requires political will and moral courage.

Women at the forefront of change

Today’s mobilisations echo back to the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war protests, the uprisings against colonial powers, and the more recent uprisings across Africa’s north and the Middle East. Often missing from the history books, women were also in the forefront of these movements.

This year, 8 March is a reminder that the origins of International Women’s Day, officially recognised by the United Nations in 1977, are deeply rooted in labour activism and women’s struggle for economic and social justice. We may not have come full circle but today’s struggles bear more than a passing resemblance to those of a century ago.

In 1909, women garment workers in the US were arrested during a 13-week strike for better pay and working conditions. In 1977, migrant women workers shut down production at London’s Grunwick film processing factory in revolt against humiliating and racist working conditions. In February this year Bangledeshi garment workers and union representatives were arrested for striking in favour of a living minimum wage.

Whilst Trump’s racist and misogynistic rhetoric is rightly causing outrage, we should be paying as much attention to his administration’s efforts to dismantle the apparatus of democracy. With sweeping strokes, Trump is muzzling press freedom, legislating through executive orders that bypass congressional scrutiny, attacking the independence of the judiciary and asserting the primacy of the nation state over international rule of law. His actions may seem chaotic but are crafted to create yet more space and power for the ruling elite that he claims to deride. He is not alone: his actions have either been fore trailed or repeated by governments and political parties across the globe.

When governments fail their people, the role of civil society becomes even more important. It’s time to strengthen intersectional, cross-movement alliances that embrace women, feminists, anti-racists, LGBTI people, people with disabilities, migrants, environmentalists, trade unionists – and anyone else prepared to stand up for our shared humanitarian values.

To quote Gloria Steinem: “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.” Join us as we fight for a more just world for generations to come.

Chidi King is the Equality Director at the International Trade Union Confederation.