TUC’s Women’s Equality Officer Scarlet Harris says IWD should be about seeking radical and progressive changes towards achieving gender equality

handbagsInternational Women’s Day is not about flogging handbags or skincare products–  it should be about seeking radical and progressive changes towards achieving gender equality.

After all, that’s why it was started by German Marxist trade unionist Clara Zetkin, at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910.

The first International Women’s Day rallies were inextricably linked to working women’s struggles for the vote, for the right to work, for decent pay and conditions, for training and for an end to discrimination.

And that’s how they should be today.

On the eve of the TUC Women’s Conference and the launch of a new report on the impact of recession and austerity on women, it’s clear that Zetkin’s battles have not yet been won.

As the International Trade Union Congress statement for this year’s International Women’s Day points out, we still have many challenges ahead:

  •  Women’s trade union membership stands on average at 40 per cent, yet women occupy only 15 per cent of the top decision-making positions in their organisations.
  •  Women’s labour force participation rates are stagnating at 26 percentage points lower than those of men.
  •  Women continue to predominate in informal, low-quality, precarious and undervalued jobs.
  •  Women’s average wages are between 4 and 36 per cent less than those of men.
  •  Gender-based violence remains an all-too-tolerated feature of the workplace, with no comprehensive international legal standard to outlaw it.

The long shadow of austerity continues to affect women heavily, cutting jobs where women have traditionally worked, slashing public services which women tend to rely on more than men and increasing their already disproportionate share of care responsibilities. Women living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to economic policies that redistribute wealth away from the 99% to the 1%, whilst their labour subsidises global and local economies by providing the care services that governments won’t fund.

After centuries of counting on us, on this International Women’s Day working women everywhere say, “It’s time to Count Us In!”

Just a cursory glance at this year’s TUC Women’s Conference agenda shows that women in unions are fighting for their rights on many different fronts, from cuts, to attacks on employment rights, to violence against women, to attacks on their reproductive rights, to underrepresentation in industry and in public life.

So, by all means enjoy a cultural day out “celebrating women” at the Southbank – you may even bump into the Duchess of Cornwall – and feel free to enjoy a women’s cycling session organised by your council, but let’s not forget the origins of this important day. Let’s celebrate our achievements but let’s also follow Zetkin’s example and use International Women’s Day as an opportunity to build solidarity, agitate, educate, and organise.

* Scarlet Harris is the TUC Women’s Equality Officer. International Women’s Day is March 8th.


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