People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 11

March 22, 2009


On International Women’s Day

Brinda Karat

INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day, a day celebrated throughout the world to express solidarity with women’s struggles for equality had a special significance this year in the context of the global financial crisis and the added burdens on the working people. If women’s emancipation is linked to women’s economic independence through productive work, then the current economic recession will badly impact on the gains made, however slender in this direction. The 53rd Commission of the United Nations on the Status of Women, recently in session in New York, was slated to discuss ‘Gender Perspectives on the Financial Crisis’ in a special session.



Preliminary reports from almost all developing countries, where in the last decade new employment avenues have been linked to export oriented industries, show the disastrous impact of the crisis on women’s employment with lakhs of women in these industries laid off or retrenched. In India, women constitute 40 percent of the agricultural workforce and 75 percent of all women workers are involved or linked to agriculture. Certainly, the deep agricultural crisis and the consequent agrarian distress has hit these women workers badly. The UPA Government’s failure to factor in the deep rural indebtedness to private moneylenders in its debt waiver schemes has particularly excluded these women.

According to National Sample Survey data among a total of 18 million urban women workers around 6 million women are involved in textile, garments and leather industries, precisely those that have been the worst hit by the recession and where women’s jobs are under threat. A recent survey of home based workers by the Delhi unit of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (see the March 15 issue of People’s Democracy) showed that thousands of women employed in outsourced trades linked to manufacturing units like garments or shoe manufacturing are working at home at extremely low piece rates which have been further depressed due to lack of orders. But this reality is invisible to policy makers. The fastest growing avenue for employment is domestic work with 3 million women estimated in this work which, in any case, is a gross underestimate. There are few protective legislations, no job security and sometimes inhuman conditions for domestic workers/maids.

Thus for women in India and worldwide, a key issue in the Women’s Day observance and celebrations this year was women’s protest against the utter failure and unsustainability of imperialist globalisation and for the global demand for gender sensitive bail out packages for women workers in the organised and unorganised sectors.



Another most important issue which the UN discussed is that of equal decision making rights for men and women. Almost 15 years after the Beijing declaration was ratified by most governments, including India, to ensure better participation of women in decision making bodies including elected posts, The most recently released global figures show that women’s representation in Parliament and local Government has increased, but only to around 18.4 percent. As many as 24 countries have representation of women over 30 percent. In India patriarchy and short-sighted political leadership reigns supreme with just 8 percent of women in Parliament which is not only 10 percentage points below the global average but is responsible for actually bringing the average down. India is ranked 98 on a gender development index for 140 countries. The UPA government had the historic opportunity to enact the Women’s Reservation Bill which would have ensured 33 percent seats to women in parliament and state assemblies. Because of the pressure of Left parties, the bill was introduced in parliament. But this was not a government priority. In violation of its own common minimum programme, the UPA preferred to protect its government by sacrificing the women’s bill in a deal within the deal to get the support of the Samajwadi Party, the most vocal opponent of the bill.

Thus on this Women’s Day, women in India as well as across the world demanded the accountability of governments in redeeming their pledge to women to ensure adequate representation in elected bodies. In India, women condemned this government for its betrayal on the women’s bill.

The UN, however, does not have a very important issue on its agenda, but one which deeply affects women. That is the war being waged in different parts of the world in the name of eliminating terror. This war, under the self-proclaimed warrior leader the United States of America has left in its wake the bloodiest of trails, led to ravaged countries, homes and families. The terrible aggression by Israel on the 1.5 million inhabitants, of the Gaza Strip to destroy the Palestinian struggle for their homeland has exposed the inhuman and savage nature of US imperialism which has backed the aggressor country Israel to the hilt. The attacks on civilians, including women and children, the maimed and bloodied bodies of countless women and children of Gaza, the continuing blockade of essential items is an issue which has agitated people the world over. The conditions of women and children in Iraq after the US occupation continues to be grim. The issue of national sovereignty, peace and security are crucial for women in all these regions afflicted by imperialist aggression in different ways. All over the world, women raised their voices in solidarity. In India too, demands were raised against war, for peace and for the government of India to stop being a subordinate to those who wage war against sovereign countries.



It is indeed a twist of history that almost a hundred years after the declaration of an International Women’s Day, the issues which moved socialist women under the leadership of the revolutionary Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) to give the call to observe a day as International Women’s Day should once again take centre stage. In 1910, at the Second Socialist International Congress of Working Women, 100 women from 17 countries, including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, endorsed Zetkin’s proposal. There were three main issues on which the day was to be observed. The first was the demand of working women, the second the demand for women’s right to vote and the third was that of peace.

The origin and history of the observance of the day and the importance of the issues raised is tellingly related in an article published in 1920 by Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) who was the first woman member of the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin. The origins lay in the militant actions of working class women in the United States and Europe. She recalls the leading role played by women workers in the textile and garments industry in New York who had organised a huge march in 1908, commemorating yet another march of women workers of 1857, demanding better wages, working conditions and an eight-hour day. The slogan was, “It is better to starve fighting than to starve working.” The 1908 march was brutally attacked by the police and scores of women were seriously injured. Women’s strikes and marches erupted repeatedly in America as well as in different countries in Europe. This was also a time when women across social classes were fighting for the right to vote in America and in Europe. The right to vote had led to militant struggles including in Britain. Kollontai wrote, “The question of making parliament more democratic, that is, of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women was a vital issue.” The third issue was that of peace with women demanding that aggressive moves by their respective governments against others should cease.

At that 1910 Congress the actual date of observance was not decided. The following years demonstrations and marches were organized in America and across Europe, some in February, some in March. In Germany it was observed on March 19, as Kollantai relates it, this was linked to observance of an anniversary of an earlier rebellion on March 19, 1848 against the then Prussian king. However, in 1913, International Women’s Day was transferred to March 8. This was the year when Russian working women first observed Women’s day. Only four years later, in 1917, on March 8 the sea of Russian women who came out on the streets of Petrograd against the imperialist war, for bread and for peace, marked the beginning of a revolution which would end with the historic Bolshevik revolution and the establishment of the first Socialist State.

What started as a call by socialist women echoed across the world with country after country accepting the day as Women’s Day and finally the United Nations in 1975 gave the call for International Women’s Day on March 8. Women across classes, regions, and communities raise the demands of women’s emancipation on March 8.

But if today in 2009, the issues of women workers, of “making parliament more democratic” and of ensuring peace and national sovereignty resonate across history with an immediacy and an urgency, it is not a coincidence but a consequence of the failures of capitalist systems to meet even these minimum requirements. In 100 years, capitalism has not become any less rapacious and savage than it was. The inequality between nations, social classes, the rich and the poor and between men and women has intensified, making the lives of the mass of people, particularly women ever more difficult.

On this Women’s Day, therefore, women renewed the pledge, made all those years ago in that brave Copenhagen conference, to fight for a better world where working people and in particular working women would be free from exploitation and all women free from gender based discrimination.